The sympathetic image of Tibetans gets a frank readjustment in “Kekexili: Mountain Patrol,” a tough, Western-flavored, true-life yarn about antelope poaching in the region of Kekexili, the last remaining virgin wilderness of Greater China. Exquisite to behold and with a stimulating storyline that mixes guns with ecological consciousness, pic is a considerable change of pace for director Lu Chuan (“The Missing Gun”) but could cross distribution borders on the strength of co-producer Col Asia’s coin and its appeal to the same niche audience captivated by “Himalaya.” Pic won the Special Jury Prize at Tokyo fest.
Antelope poachers kidnap and execute a member of the Tibetan posse that was trying to capture them. A voiceover by Beijing photojournalist Ga Yu (Zhang Lei) and on-screen titles inform that the Tibetan antelope population plummeted from 1 million to 70,000 in five years, the animals’ woolen coats making them a prime target for rustlers.
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In 1996, Ga Yu recruits the resourceful Ritai (Duobujie), a maverick who set up a private mountain patrol three years earlier, to accompany the posse on its mission. The drama unfolds over 17 days, with the journo witnessing the ruthlessness of the profiteers, and the patrol of volunteers combating their merciless adversaries and a frequently dangerous landscape. Pic also astutely notes the compromises by failed farmers and others who are caught in the middle of the struggle due to their own economic precariousness.
End titles report that the patrol was eventually superceded by a government initiative after a newspaper article by the real-life Ga Yu in 1997 created an uproar. The antelope population has since increased.
Commanding every moment he’s on screen, hard-faced Duobujie is outstanding as patrol leader Ritai. Zhang is also effective as the journalist who risks his life for the story of a lifetime. Supporting perfs are mainly by non-pros. Although most of their lapses in talent appear to have been edited out, their mistakes tend to add rather than detract from the realism.
With a very different style from the musicvid-like restlessness of his previous pic, Lu reveals a photographer’s eye for powerful images and iconic faces. In tandem with talented lenser Cao Yu, he takes full advantage of the awesome Tibetan landscape and the vivid colors worn by locals.
Other tech credits are strong, including some CGI to create dust and snow storms. Extensive music by Lao Zai, which uses local folk traditions, will warm the hearts of world music enthusiasts.