A modern-day version of a western posse-story set among the tribesmen in the wintry mountains of Tibet may not seem the most accessible of films, but writer-director Lu Chuan’s “Mountain Patrol: Kekexili,” based on actual events from the 1990s, proves a fascinating oddity, marked by amazing locales and a narrative that continually subverts your expectations. Unsparing in its depiction of brutality yet strangely beautiful, the effect is hypnotic even when it’s at its most violent.
“Kekexili” begins with a sequence of protected antelope being slaughtered by poachers, who also capture one of the local volunteers charged with protecting the herds and killing him, execution-style. The death brings Ga Yu (Zhang Lei), a journalist from Beijing, to the scene, who serves to observe the aftermath from an outsider’s perspective. Ri Tai (Duo Bujie), the stern leader of the volunteer group protecting the animals, raises a posse of his followers to track down the poachers and bring them in, with the reporter accompanying the group. Though their convoy is fired upon, they continue the pursuit, eventually capturing a band of skinners in the employ of the poachers. But the dearth of supplies and gasoline force the company to free the prisoners and split up themselves, some staying behind and others returning to town for the necessities, while Ri Tai and Ga Yu continue the chase; but the unforgiving weather and the dangers posed both by the landscape and the poachers bring disaster.
On the surface this is a simple chase story, but it’s distinguished by several factors. One, of course, is the setting, which provides some awesome vistas–it’s no surprise that the National Geographic Society was involved in the production. The scenes of the slaughtered antelope carcases spread over the ice-covered plain are spectacularly horrifying, too. But the picture adds some welcome complexity to the characters as well. Ri Tai is an obsessive, of course–in many respects similar to the character John Wayne played in “The Searchers”–but he’s also a tortured figure, embarrassed in that he can’t simply follow the law in terms of the fleeces he confiscates because the government hasn’t funded his operation; and when he faces off against the boss of the poachers, whom he’s been trying to locate since his work began, he’s unable to compromise his principles–which has a sudden and tragic effect one would hardly expect. And while the other characters are sketched more broadly, they’re individualized, too. Even the old man who heads the skinners captured by the posse is given considerably shading and depth. The result is that the film isn’t simply a story of heroes and villains, but something more subtle than that.
And one won’t quickly forget the images of tundra and waste captured by Lu and cinematographer Cao Yu, complemented by a score from Lao Zai that makes good use of folk themes.
“Mountain Patrol: Kekexili” is hardly the sort of film that’s going to show up in the neighborhood multiplex, but it’s worth watching for on alternative screens.