Mountain Patrol

April, 2006, Drama

Mountain Patrol: Kekexili

A film about the chiru (an endangered breed of Tibetan antelope) set in a present day game preserve? Sounds like something on television's "Animal Planet" series, right? Well, if you're lucky enough to find a theater showing it, buy a ticket and get introduced to one of the most startling movies I've come across in quite some time. This Chinese import, part thriller, part eco-protest and totally mesmerizing--is quite possibly the most riveting experience you'll have at the movies all year.

The chiru are small, delicate creatures that nature has designed to survive the harsh, high-altitude environment in which they've developed over the millennia. Unfortunately, nature didn't adequately prepare them for the human fashionistas who've developed a taste for the shawls, (called shantoosh) that are made from their fur, nor the automatic weapons poachers employ to slaughter them in order to harvest the wool made from their hides, scattering thousands of their carcasses over Tibet’s rock-strewn plains. By the early 1990's, the once populous chiru were nearing extinction, protected only by under-financed and poorly equipped volunteer patrols dispatched to track the death dealers and the skinners who accompany them.

Ga Yu, an idealistic Chinese journalist, joins such a patrol as it pursues the outlaws who inhabit this remote part of the world, as desolate as it is stunning. Like a modern day Captain Ahab, the patrol's captain, Ri Tai, is determined to administer rough, if informal, justice. Armed with provision-laden jeeps and outdated rifles, he and his squad pursue their quarry over a road-less landscape that surely resembles the far side of the moon; endlessly arid and bracketed by soaring, snow-capped peaks which offer neither solace nor safety. Relying only on the support of companions, the reliability of their equipment and the sheer will to survive, Ri Tai and his small crew enter an environment that's perpetually chancy not least because their confrontations with the poachers threaten to turn into old-fashioned Wild West shootouts. It's little wonder these volunteers experienced such devastating attrition.

Writer/director Lu Chan provides his characters with minimal dialogue, which the subtitles render even more terse, but the performances he elicits from his cast evoke all the emotional energy this ruggedly exciting storyline requires; body language and facial expressions convey individual strengths and weaknesses with such subtle variety the audience has no trouble understanding the action which takes place and the complex motivations with drive it. Even the villains are given their due; they're despicable, but recognizably human too, as they attempt bribery and intimidation in order to make good their escape. 

But it's the stunning cinematography here that's the most memorable part of this exceptional film; with vistas reminiscent of John Ford's westerns, (and landscapes as barren as those employed by Sergio Leone in his spaghetti Westerns) director of photography Cao Yu creates a world of harsh beauty and ever-present danger. Dust storms, vistas of unimaginable scope, quicksand traps, and jeep trips above cloud level and always the jagged beauty of the mountain peaks that hermetically seal this forlorn land off from the rest of the world are captured with stunning appreciation for this seldom-seen part of Tibet. That life exists here at all seems little short of incredible; that it carries with it all the violence and danger to be found on the rest of the planet seems almost too much to bear. Never has Thomas Hobbes' description of life as "nasty, brutish and short" been more descriptive.

In such an environment as in life, the good guys frequently lose. Although the Chinese government finally created an enormous game park out of much of this region in the mid-'90's and formed army units to assure the safety of the chiru, (which now number over 100,000 again) the price paid by the earliest patrol members was steep, as this harrowingly gorgeous film so poignantly demonstrates.

P.S. Even the largest television screen can't possibly deliver the full impact of this movie; if you can't catch it on a big screen, you'll miss much of what it has to offer. Go out of your way to see this one in a theater. 

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