Perhaps it's a sign of our shrinking, ever-more connected globe that it becomes ever-more difficult to document truly dangerous stories in exotic locations. Our experience of adventure has become so debased and secondhand that one cannot even use the word "extreme" anymore without a roll of the eyes. But, in the kind of movie that seems to come stumbling out of the world's most difficult terrain every year or so, Mountain Patrol: Kekexili succeeds in taking us where few men and even fewer women ever dare to tread.
This tale of a group of volunteer Tibetan conservationists in armed conflict against the poachers who threaten the Tibet antelope herds is a breathtaking trip into one of the world's least habitable regions. Lu Chuan's film, set in Kekexili, the high plateau shared (or disputed) by Tibet and China, is no kid-friendly outing akin to the marching penguins. Instead, in its depiction of the implacable cruelty of nature--human and otherwise--the film evokes Hemingway in its ethical scope.
Since much of Hemingway's work resulted from firsthand reportage, it's fitting that Mountain Patrol is told through the eyes of a city slicker journalist, Ga Yu (Zhang Lei), a reporter who has been sent by his Beijing paper to cover the brave anti-poaching volunteers. The leader of the Kekexili Patrol is Capt. Ri Tai (Duo Bujie), and he's initially suspicious of the journalist until the latter points out that the publicity could help raise awareness of the poaching problem. Ri Tai relents and takes Ga Yu on a patrol into the wilderness where the altitudes top 5,000 meters (more than three miles).
As it happens, this patrol is exceptionally dangerous because the poachers have murdered a patroller and the lawmen are out to apprehend the killer. So, with a few deft early scenes--alternately horrifying and expository--Mountain Patrol establishes itself as a revenge drama and a sobering environmental exposé, in addition to being a pictorial excursion into the remotest corners of Tibet.
Using the device of journalism, Mountain Patrol provides a window into present-day Tibetan culture, one that retains some of its ancient religious and cultural customs but is also unmistakably grappling with modernity. In town, the bored, underemployed young adults drink and carouse, and the women who keep the men company wear the sexy uniform of the West: miniskirts, fishnet stockings and black knee-high boots. The first order of business for Ga Yu, however, is to attend the traditional funeral service for the dead patrolman, which consists of chanting prayers and releasing the corpse to vultures. Later, he's charmed by Ri Tai's daughter who wears traditional clothing, although the intimations of impending romance is a red herring.
This isn't just Richard Gere's Tibet. This Tibet is populated by hardscrabble people who need to eat. Unfortunately, the demise of the traditional subsistence herding economy means that some Tibetans are turning to poaching the antelope, the hides of which command a high price on the black market. Out on the range, Ri Tai gives the ugly statistics: Where the herd was once over a million strong, the remaining antelope number fewer than 100,000. The patrollers come upon the scene of a ghastly massacre, in which vultures are picking away at the rib cages of 400 antelope that have been machine-gunned to death. Every year we bury 10,000 antelope, Ri Tai tells the reporter grimly.
The pursuit of the murderous poachers stretches on for three weeks, and conditions go from bad to worse. The film is relentless in its depiction of suffering, for man and beast alike, for good guys and bad guys. In certain scenes we recoil from the slaughter of antelope, but this is a film in which characters are finally reduced to hunting, skinning and eating an uncooked rabbit. The conditions get so horrible that patrollers succumb to altitude sickness, hypothermia and pulmonary edemas. There are scenes that recall other films like the Inuit epic The Fast Runner, such as a chase scene that is literally conducted at a crawl, as the oxygen-depleted pursuer and fugitive crawl weakly across the moon-like surface.
In such scenes, the line between fiction and documentary comes perilously close to being eliminated. From the film's press notes I learned that the conditions were, if anything, even more punishing for the cast and crew than what is depicted fictitiously. For instance, a scene in which patrollers took off their pants to run across a shallow river left several actors in the hospital, and a real-life journalist covering the shoot described a week of sleepless, nauseous misery.
While Ri Tai is the film's nominal hero, it becomes clear that, for all of the nobility of his cause, he is a near-fanatic. He pushes his posse to the brink of death, and when captives become too cumbersome to transport through the wilderness, he abandons them to the elements without hesitation. We don't learn much about Ri Tai's former life, about what turned him into sort of a Greenpeace Ahab who isn't above selling confiscated pelts if that's what it takes to pay his men.
Fans of the German-American director Werner Herzog will recognize this sort of filmmaking, in which the director becomes as dangerously obsessive as his main character--think Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre: The Wrath of God or last year's Grizzly Man.
Herzog's films tend to be metaphysical, but Mountain Patrol ultimately becomes a story of human desperation and the cruel consequences of our need to survive. While the events of Mountain Patrol are motivated by the need to preserve the lives of antelopes, the film ultimately zeroes in on the human casualties in the struggle over scarce resources. The most shocking deaths in Mountain Patrol are not of antelopes, but of humans.
The expansive and beautiful vistas of the Tibetan landscape--in the widescreen Cinemascope aspect ratio--present an almost cruel contrast to the suffering that we see. Our appreciation of the National Geographic style of landscape photography (National Geographic is, in fact, one of the film's producers) is undercut by a nagging sense that the eye candy is obscuring uglier truths. There is no escaping the punishing realities of trying to eke out an existence at 5,000 meters, whether for humans or for antelopes.
Mountain Patrol: Kekexili opens Friday at the Chelsea theater in Chapel Hill.