By their nature, conservationist melodramas are tough to put over: Unless you torture science Roland Emmerich–style, the concrete concerns are long-term (save the water, the whales, or the woods), and the principles, vacuum-packed by narrative pressure, can easily veer off into Ludditic sanctimony. The best you can hope for is political critique— an easy anti-globalism dunk for the well-intentioned, you’d think, except no one yet knows how to satisfy our hunger for gasoline, bananas, and paper, and how to feed several billion scrounge-workers, without inevitably laying waste to the third world. The 2004 Chinese adventure saga Mountain Patrol: Kekexili, which takes on the poaching of the endangered Tibetan antelope, skirts the hairier questions by staying on one hand enthrallingly close to the ground, and on the other hand by trucking in Hollywood-style epicness. The sense of fundamental outrage does not evolve into asking who’s slaughtering wildlife, and why, but instead basks before mountains saturated with unearthly tropospheric light. For better or worse, no film of the last decade, not even Malick’s The New World, has displayed such a ferocious intimacy with extreme landscape.
Lu Chuan’s film is a full-on elegy for a band of paramilitary volunteers that in the mid ’90s patrolled the titular highlands encompassing hunks of Tibet, Qinghai Province, and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, prowling after outlaw hunters. The combat was both genuine and hopeless—the patrol could only confiscate and fine, not arrest or defend themselves with gunfire, while the poachers regularly assassinated lone guards and shot over their shoulders. Brought in from Beijing after one such murder, an obligatorily fresh-faced reporter (Zhang Lei) is our eyes and ears among the motley, outlaw-glam wild bunch, led by a grizzled, taciturn man-of-ideals (Duo Bujie). Together they launch out onto the endless frontier for a weeks-long sojourn of frustration, ethical muddiness, and butcher-block residue. (Lu makes the most out of post-poaching carnage, acres evenly littered with bloodied carcasses or seized pelts.) Vultures attend the funeral services, and pulmonary edema is a pervasive threat. The terrain is both victim and destiny-dealer—an encounter with desert quicksand is just as viscerally roiling as it was in the matinee programmers of George Lucas’s childhood, while getting a truck loosed from a bog of icy mud becomes a major dramatic issue. Tellingly, few antelope are seen—as if the hopes for a national preserve, and therefore state policing, are already dashed.
No recent Chinese film we’ve seen detours this far away from the noncommittal-observational mode of Jia Zhangke—indeed, Kekexili was co-produced by Columbia and National Geographic, and Lu’s muscular realism makes it a project Anthony Minghella would be proud of, if not one he’d have the modesty to achieve. For its part, the movie seems, for its national cinema, unusually fervent about its progressive cause and even Taoist in its devotion to the verities of the immediate environment. But for all of its well-schooled orthodoxy and visual splendor, Kekexili remains somewhat off-kilter—the characters’ passionate wartime camaraderie and doomed sense of martyrdom aren’t quite reflected in the facts of volunteer service and devotion to a balanced ecosystem. The enemy isn’t invading hordes but scattered, scrambling, panicking Chinese peasants trying to feed themselves by way of the West’s thriving market for fur. Lu isn’t afraid of the irony his story churns up, but the real villains—the government that provides the west China populace few other options and the international consumers who pony up for pelts—are left unaddressed. Lu would’ve had to trace out an entire Traffic-style tapestry to sensibly contextualize the heroic action on the plateau.