Kekexili - Mountain Patrol - Mountain Patrol is a strange case. Made in China in 2004, it was shown in the UK at the 2005 London Film Festival and then released on DVD in December that year. Despite it being readily available, for some reason it has gained a UK cinema release as of September 29th. A strange choice it's true, but it's great that people have the chance to see the film in cinemas, as the breathtaking landscapes cry out for the full silver screen treatment.
The film is set in 1996 after poachers murder a member of the Kekexili mountain patrol. The patrol is made up of civilian volunteers, and it formed in 1993 as the numbers of the Tibetan antelope dramatically declined due to illegal poaching. The film follows Ga Yu, a reporter from Beijing who joins up with the mountain patrol under their leader Ri Tai as they set off on the hunt for poachers, with an aim to share their story with the rest of China and have Kekexili made into a nature reserve. Over the next few weeks Ga Yu bonds with the men of the patrol and witnesses the barely tolerable conditions that they work in as they try and track down the poachers and the murderers of their friend.
Kekexili is as harsh as the unforgiving mountains where the action takes place. That it is all based on real-life events makes it all the more astounding, and by the end it's hard to believe that such a bleak world really exists. The happy ending of the Chinese government making Kekexili a protected area occurs long after the film has finished, and we are left feeling shell-shocked after following the patrol through the barren tundra that the Tibetan antelope call home. A sturdy documentary feel masks the fictional story that fleshes out the real events, as exposition is delivered via the patrol's newcomer, Ga Yu the reporter, and the day-to-day experiences of the patrol are portrayed in a very matter of fact manner with little dialogue.
The drama comes in when the conditions become even harsher but patrol leader Ri Tai decides to continue the hunt for the poacher that murdered his patrolman, and we become acutely aware of how lethal Mother Nature can be as the patrol starts to dwindle. Ri Tai is really the star of the show here as we see his quiet confidence grow into a suicidal determination to get his man as the days pass and the situation worsens.
All the while the story of the patrol's struggle and the hunt for the poachers is framed by the most breathtaking landscape possible, in some cases it's hard to believe that it exists and isn't some CGI construct. In all Mountain Patrol is beautifully shot and so well acted (by a cast of mostly non-professionals) that it would be easily to believe that the real patrolman are playing themselves. As much about the bonding of the patrolmen as it is about the fight against the poachers, Kekexili - Mountain Patrol tells the story of brotherhood and survival against the odds.
Sony have offered a bare-bones disc with nothing in the way of extras besides a couple of trailers for other Sony art house releases. This is a real shame as a making-of featurette detailing the obviously harsh conditions of the production would have complemented the film well, but it would be hard to include such material where it doesn't exist. The picture quality is high though and there are French, Italian and Spanish dubs available besides the original Mandarin audio, as well as over 20 subtitle tracks to choose from besides English and English for the hard of hearing.
Kekexili - Mountain Patrol is a deeply impressive film, mixing authentic realism with some truly touching drama, and topping it all off with the kind of landscape photography that would make the BBC's Planet Earth team weep with envy. Be it in the cinema or on DVD you should really take a chance on Kekexili.