The Winner of the FIPRESCI Award for Best Film at the International Film Festival of Kerala, Kekexili takes an intriguing look at a region that has attracted much cinema attention over recent years. While other films have focused on or debated issues regarding the fragile and upsetting political situation in Tibet – Dreaming Lhasa also screened at this festival and is a fascinating, if not flawed examination of Tibet’s plight in the face of Chinese occupation – director Lu Chuan turns his eye to a little-known environmental issue that had a tragic human face.
Rather than settle into a quiet life of contemplation, retired Chinese soldier, Ritai (Tibetan actor, Duobuji) has established an informal troop of rangers in response to the poaching of Tibetan antelopes on the high plains of Kekexili. His fierce dedication and driving commitment draws a similar passion in his men. When Beijing journalist, Ga Yu arrives to conduct an interview for his newspaper, Ritai is initially reluctant to cooperate until he realises that the publicity may bring some legitimacy to his private cause.
After the death of one of their comrades, the Mountain Patrol sweeps a bewildered Ga Yu into their macho embrace and head off to the plains to protect their charges and perhaps capture the killers. As the journey progresses, however, Ga Yu comes to realise that life in the Mountain Patrol is not as black and white as one might expect. He begins to question the morals and techniques Ritai and his men use in protecting the antelopes, and even more importantly, finds himself caught up in a crusade that might threaten his own life.
As readers might expect, Lu Chuan has used the terrain of the Himalayas and the Kekexili Plains to spectacular effect. The mostly monochrome palate of the Tibetan highlands is punctuated by intermittent splashes of colour, including one baleful scene showing the poacher’s killing fields spotted with carrion-seeking vultures. Imagery of this region is often a sufficient device to carry a less powerful narrative. But scenery takes a comfortable back seat to Lu Chuan’s script, which is powerful in its exploration of masculinity and zealotry. Ritai’s men are blinded to almost everything – there is the slightest hint of a love story, which ends in lonely tragedy – and the love of their leader and comrades sit squarely beside their dedication to the antelopes.
Duobuji successfully captures the single-minded nature of Ritai, a man committed to sacrificing everything in the name of protecting his precious antelopes and bringing the poachers to justice; and the largely non-professional actors portraying the patrol itself do a fine job of evoking the camaraderie and bravado that exists in such groups.
While the denouement is bleak and distressing, and the events of the film almost clinically laid out, Lu Chuan offers hope in the form of a simple postscript outlining events occurring in the wake of Ga Yu’s story.
Kekexili is a tragedy related in fine style, and in the best traditions of cinema, Lu Chuan and his team leave their audience emotionally exhausted, narratively satisfied and visually astounded.