It's Hard Out Here for an Antelope

Washington City Paper | April 21, 2006
Mountain Patrol: Kekexili could have been a political film—except, of course, that it couldn’t. Made in Tibet by a Chinese writer-director, Lu Chuan, the movie can’t address the issues of China’s absorption of that country, or of Tibetan resistance to it. Indeed, the whole story can be seen as a case of sublimation: Rather than battle the Chinese, the members of the titular patrol take to the wilds to foil poachers of the endangered Tibetan antelope. The rest of the political and economic framework that encourages the poaching must be supplied by the viewer.

Based on the real adventures of an actual (but since disbanded) group of volunteers, Mountain Patrol avoids geopolitical issues by stressing something that’s more immediate: protecting the antelopes—and the antelopes’ protectors—in a region that’s as inhospitable as it is spectacular. The setup, as well as many of the set pieces, are familiar from decades of manly mountain and desert epics. Chinese-Tibetan reporter Ga Yu (Zhang Lei) arrives to do a feature about Ri Tai (Duo Bujie) and his band of rough-edged, machine-gun-toting conservationists. Having an outsider in their ranks, the normally taciturn mountain men must explain to him—and therefore to us—what they do. Then the conflict begins, with starvation, quicksand, and pulmonary edema potentially just as deadly to the patrol members as the ruthless poachers. If the scenery and scale suggest a Hollywood Western, the vibe is that of a late, disillusioned example of the genre. In other words, don’t expect the good guys to win.

A film that’s been around the festival circuit a few times since its 2004 premiere, Mountain Patrol was not made on a shoestring budget. It’s a co-production of National Geographic, Samuel Goldwyn, and Columbia Pictures Asia, and cinematographer Cao Yu clearly never forgot that Geographic was on board: Mountains loom, distances awe, and high-altitude sunlight dapples this forbidding wonderland. The documentary elements include disturbing views of the aftermath of a mass antelope slaughter—the animals are killed for their wool, known as shahtoosh—although scenes of actual butchery are merely suggested. A sky burial, in which the parts of a human corpse are fed to vultures, is also intimated rather than shown.

Set in 1996, during the patrol’s final days, the film has an elegiac quality that can be variously interpreted. (One possibility: While antelope herds have reportedly made a modest comeback, Tibetans remain threatened.) Yet as it proceeds, there’s little time for contemplation. If not as intimate and insistent as L’Enfant, the movie does have a powerful you-are-there quotient. The larger issues may be obscured, but Mountain Patrol temporarily makes the matter of a few men’s survival seem like the biggest thing in the world.

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