(Goldwyn) Duo Bujie, Zhang Lei, Qi Liang, Zhao Xueying, Ma Zhanlin. Directed by Lu Chuan
In the Tibetan highlands of the Kekexili pass, life is brutal and merciless. The altitude makes physical activity demanding, and the cold, thin air makes vegetation sparse and unappealing. There is little of value there – but some things more precious than gold.
The Kekexili pass is the last remaining habitat of the Tibetan antelope. Once numbering in the millions, the animal had been hunted by poachers to near-extinction, with less than 10,000 remaining of the breed by the mid-90s. Appalled at the unabated slaughter of the animal, a group of Tibetan men took it upon themselves to protect them against the poachers.
They have no government support and almost no supplies. They have little authority which mainly consists of confiscating illegally poached antelope pelts. They are poorly armed and in harms way, demonstrated as the movie opens with the brutal execution of one of the Patrol’s members.
Chinese journalist Ga Yu (Lei) arrives in the village where the patrol is based just in time to make the funeral of the executed patrol member. These funerals are referred to as Sky Burials by the locals. Afterwards, Ga is taken to the leader of the patrol, Ritai (Bujie). Formerly a member of the military, he has taken leave from his unit to lead the patrol. Taciturn, brooding but with a deep abiding love for the land and its creatures, he proposes to lead a patrol to find the poacher who executed his man. This poacher has grown progressively bolder and with him murdering a member of the patrol, the time has come to take action against him.
The patrol goes out, with Ga in tow and Ritai’s right hand man Liu Dong (Liang). They capture a family of poachers who have ties to the one who murdered the patrol member and manage to extract the location of the bandit in question. However, the journey is a long and difficult one, and it becomes clear that they will be unable to continue the mission with the entire team and the captured poachers. They release their prisoners and Liu is sent back to the village with the injured and sick. Once Liu gets to the medical clinic, however, it becomes clear that they can’t afford the fees for treatment. Ritai instructs him to sell some of the pelts. Ga is aghast at this but Ritai tells him, matter-of-factly that the government had not sent any financial support in over a year.
One of their trucks breaks down, so Ritai and Ga head after the poachers alone, leaving the men to wait for Liu Dong, knowing that if he cannot find them they will die very quickly in the unforgiving environment of the Kekexili. And what of Ritai? Outnumbered and outgunned, how can he hope to take down the poacher who he has chased into the very roof of the world?
This movie takes place in a bleak and harsh landscape and in many ways the storyline reflects this. Director Chuan’s cast is mainly amateurs, with the exception of Lei and Bujie. They do exceptionally good jobs in conveying the kind of men who live such a difficult existence, but carry with them a great passion for the land and the things that live in it. The name “Kekexili” in their language means “beautiful mountains” and also “beautiful maidens.” For them, the highlands are both.
Bujie makes a fine heroic figure, a man fully aware of how tough his men need to be to survive, but at the same time fiercely protective of them. Handsome in a rugged way, this is the kind of role that Jack Palance or Robert De Niro would have taken on had they been younger or Tibetan (preferably both).
The real star here is the Kekexili itself. Cinematographer Cao Yu is one of the best in the world at what he does, and he makes wonderful use of the beautifully bleak vistas. So alien is the landscape that it almost seems another planet. Still, in the harshness there is great beauty and poetry, and it is captured nicely.
So too is the life of those who live in the Kekexili, a life filled with little promise but still lived with great joy. The Tibetan villagers are a rugged lot – they have to be to survive in an unforgiving place as the Kekexili, where one misstep, one mistake can mean death.
The movie is based on actual events – the mountain patrol really existed in the mid-90s, although this is a fictionalized account of their deeds. The movie has gone on to great acclaim in Asia, and has brought about changes in how the Chinese government deals with poachers. There is now a military patrol that actively prosecutes poaching in the Kekexili highlands and the size of the antelope herd has more than tripled since the movie was set.
This is a look at a culture as alien as the one displayed in Avatar, yet it is here in our world. The movie is unrelentingly grim in many ways, and it doesn’t end well for all those who are portrayed in it. Still, it is a fascinating movie, beautifully photographed and well worth a look, even if you’re not fond of subtitles (the movie’s dialogue is almost entirely in Mandarin and Tibetan). We seldom get to see what is going on in our own attic, but this movie gives us a glimpse at a place and a culture we rarely are able to see. That’s all the incentive I need to see a movie like this one.
WHY RENT THIS: Stunning landscapes of harsh barrenness are breathtaking. A rare look into a part of the world rarely seen onscreen.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The bleakness of the scenery carries over into the movie, which may be a bit too disturbing and grim for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of sexuality and several disturbing scenes, particularly the shooting of an antelope and the death by quicksand of one of the patrol.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene in which the antelope is shot utilizes a Mongolian Gazelle as actual Tibetan antelope are protected by international and Chinese law. The crew affixed the antlers of an antelope and filmed the shooting with two cameras. Some of the crew were very upset by this and the animal was given a funeral and buried.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
FINAL RATING: 7/10