Kekexili is more than one of the most remote and starkly beautiful locations on Earth. It's a place with a spirit of its own, a spirit that's been infused into the strong and gritty Chinese import "Mountain Patrol: Kekexili." About four miles high on the Tibetan plateau, Kekexili is so remote and inhospitable, someone says, that "each step you take might be the first human footprints since the world began."
Making lots of hoof prints are the chiru, or Tibetan antelopes, animals that are graceful beyond words and use the Kekexili as their habitat and breeding grounds. Because their coats are exceptionally soft, the animals have been the targets of poachers so successful that by the 1990s the antelope population had declined from an estimated 1 million to 10,000.
Things have in fact gotten so bad that the local people formed a mountain patrol to combat the poachers. The film, based on a true story, opens with the murder of a patrol member, a death that attracts the interest of Ga Yu (Zhang Lei), a photojournalist from far-off Beijing.
Not surprisingly, given China's history in Tibet, Ri Tai (veteran Tibetan actor Duo Bujie), the steely-eyed leader of the patrol, is not exactly thrilled to see the new arrival. But the journalist says his publication can help with Ri Tai's dream of getting the Kekexili declared a nature preserve, and the leader allows him to tag along on his group's next mountain foray.
To this point, "Mountain Patrol" comes off as involving but fairly standard, like a Chinese version of an old Hollywood western, complete with emotional goodbyes to loved ones as the patrol heads out into the unknown like a John Ford cavalry unit. Could this be the work that became the first Mainland movie to win Taiwan's Golden Horse award as the best Chinese language film of 2004, besting such heavy hitters as Wong Kar-wai's "2046" and "Infernal Affairs III"?
But Kekexili is such a brutal, unforgiving place that it doesn't allow any film shot there to hold on to its innocence. If nothing else the area's look (captured by cinematographer Cao Yu, who also won a Golden Horse) is unsettling in its barren neo-lunar vastness.
And being in this pitiless environment stiffens the spine of the film's tale.
The air is so thin that any kind of exertion is a hazard, and the place is so remote that even the smallest miscalculation can put you at grave risk of your life in the middle of nowhere.
These kinds of merciless conditions lead to a culture that is stoic about life and death and a story that will surprise you by its willingness to embrace that unsentimental natural world. The experience of these Tibetans, we are told, eventually moved all of China, and "Mountain Patrol: Kekexili" leaves no doubt as to why.
'Mountain Patrol: Kekexili'
MPAA rating: Unrated
A National Geographic World Films, Samuel Goldwyn Films, Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia release. Director Lu Chuan. Producer Wang Zhonglei. Screenplay Lu Chuan. Director of photography Cao Yu. Editor Teng Yun.
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.
In limited release.