Dir: LuChuan. Chi-HK. 2004. 90mins.
Chinesefilm-maker Lu Chuan, who made a lively debut with The Missing Gun in2001, confirms his promise and extends his range with Kekexili: MountainPatrol, which screened in Forum at Berlin after successful outings at Tokyoand Sundance (it also beat Wong Kar-wai's's 2046 to the best film prizeat Taiwan's Golden Horse Awards).
An epic of sortsset in the sprawling animal reserve of Kekexili, it is, like The Missing Guna product of Sony's Asian production division and its principal markets will bein Asia.
Reminiscent ofrecent sweeping mountain stories like Himalaya and Samsara or classic movieslike Urga or Dersu Urzula, it lacks the romantic dash which has madeinternational specialized audiences take note of Chinese titles such as HouseOf Flying Daggers or Warriors Of Heaven And Earth. Natural spectacleaside, Lu tells a grim true story which has only minor arthouse potential inwestern markets.
The subjectmatter is an intriguing one. In the 1990s, a bunch of Tibetans formed avolunteer mountain patrol to stop the illegal poaching of the rare anddwindling species of Tibetan antelope in Kekexili, a barren expanse covering40,000 square kilometres which sits 5,000 metres high on the Qinghai-Tibetanplateau.
Lu follows thetried and tested, somewhat cliched trick of telling the story through the eyesof a journalist, one Ga Yu (Zhang Lei) who arrives at the camp of the patrolfrom Beijing when the film begins, although in a prologue we have alreadywitnessed a patrol-member being killed by poachers.
After thefuneral of the patrolman, the band of vigilantes sets off in pursuit of thepoachers, taking the journalist with them. In charge is the enigmatic commanderRi Tai (Duo Bujie), who leads them through the killing fields of antelopes andonto the trail of the poachers.
Among thecharacters we meet on the journey are Liu Dong, a patrolman who is sent to takea sick man to the hospital and who meets a sticky end on his return, and MaZhanlin, an ageing mountain main who has made a living through skinningantelopes.
Ga Yu begins torealise that the patrol will stop at nothing to protect their homelandincluding putting their own lives - and his - at risk and selling the veryhides they aim to stop being sold in order to finance their operation. Ri Taibecomes increasingly obsessed with capturing the man in charge of the poachinggang and callously leaves his own men to die in the extreme cold when one ofthe trucks runs out of oil.
The showdownbetween Ri Tai and his nemesis ends, of course, in tragedy, but Ga Yu is ableto affect some change with his article and the future of the Tibetan antelopeis made secure.
Lu brings thestark and treacherous landscapes of Kekexili to the screen without sugarcoating, and the story of the mountain patrol is similarly bleak. He isconcerned with bold elemental emotions like greed, passion and survival, anduses sparse dialogue and minimal characterisation to portray them. While thefilm possesses a moving grandeur, it only occasionally connects with theaudience on a gentler human level.
Prod cos: Huayi Brothers, Taihe Film Investment CoLtd, Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia
W'wide dist: SonyPictures
Exec prods: Chen KuoFu, Wang Zhonglei, He Ping
Prod: Wang Zhongjun
Scr: Lu Chuan
Cine: Cao Yu
Prod des: Lu Dong,Han Chunlin
Ed: Teng Yun
Mus: Lao Zai
Main cast: Duo Bujie,Zhang Lei, Qi Liang, Zhao Xueying, Ma Zhanlin