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Chuan Lu’s “Mountain Patrol” is truly extraordinary in many ways, not least in the incredible real-life hardships endured by the cast and crew during the filmmaking process. The film was actually shot on location in the remote Hoh Kil (Kekexili) region, which lies across the borders of Western China, Tibet and Uygur, and is the third least inhabited area in the world. At a height of around 4,600, living conditions are harsh at best, and the cast and crew were beset with intense fatigue, freezing cold, debilitating illness, and even a tragic fatal accident.
The final result is a stunning, beautiful, moving and realistic film which chronicles, in an almost documentary-like fashion, the incredible story of a band of volunteers who attempt to stop poachers from preying upon the endangered Tibetan antelope. Although emotional, the film is cruel and unflinching, treating the complexities of the situation with due respect, and never falling into the trap of cheap sentimentalism or flag waving environmentalism. As a result, “Mountain Patrol” carries a powerful, desperate message about the search for hope and the meaning of life in a way that is exceptionally inspirational, and likely to stay with the viewer for a considerable length of time.
Despite some initial disinterest in its native China and suspicion regarding the fact that it was in part funded by a major U.S. film studio, sixth generation director Lu Chan (whose previous film was his critically acclaimed debut, “The Missing Gun”) has seen the film reap considerable praise, as well as a growing number of prestigious awards. These have so far included the ‘Special Jury’ award at the Tokyo International Film Festival, the ‘Best Picture’ award at the 2004 Golden Horse (which in itself was remarkable, given that mainland Chinese films are rarely allowed into competition at the Taiwanese awards show), and nominations for Best Director and an award for the cinematography by Cao Yu.
After a shocking opening in which a member of the mountain patrol is coldly executed by bandits, the plot follows Ga Yu (Qi Liang), a reporter from Beijing who travels to the region to do a story on the volunteers. He teams up with Ritai (Tibetan actor Tobgyal), the leader of the patrol, who takes him out on one of their missions after they receive information on the whereabouts of the poachers. As they travel through the wilderness tracking their quarry, the incredible odds facing the penniless volunteers become apparent, as they battle not only a well-armed and ruthless enemy, but the unforgiving forces of nature itself.
Chan’s direction, perfectly accompanied by Yu’s stunning cinematography, is wonderful, and he makes full use of the breathtaking scenery without ever exploiting it for mere eye candy. The wilderness becomes an uncaring, deadly character, and plays a vital role, not only as an obstacle, but also as a source of inspiration and spirituality for both the volunteers and the poachers. Chan’s direction in “Mountain Patrol” is vastly different from the flashy style shown in “The Missing Gun”, and here he aims for a more detached, realistic and at times brutal effect.
It is this even handed approach, coupled with the documentary feel that Chan uses to give the film a deeply honest and thoughtful aspect, which raises it above being any kind of environmentalist rant. The mountain patrol are far from saints, and are instead a ragtag collection of passionate but desperate souls often forced to sell the goods seized from the poachers in order to buy their own supplies and guns. Similarly, the poachers themselves are never demonized, and are sympathetically portrayed as farmers whose ruthlessness stems from land seizures and enforced homelessness. Although there are a fair few unpleasant scenes involving the slaughter of antelopes, Chan never uses this to shock overtly, or as an obvious tug at viewer heartstrings.
The film as a whole is honest and uncompromising, not the least because it utilises amateur Tibetan actors in almost all the roles save that of the journalist. Although Chan never really tries to explain the motivations or the emotions driving the characters, their passions and belief are revealed tellingly through their actions and the extraordinary lengths they are willing to go. Their efforts are truly inspiring and give the film a real heart as it meditates in fascinating fashion about the meanings of life and hope.
In addition to such worthiness and earnest contemplation, “Mountain Patrol” is a genuinely exciting and harrowing experience. Running for an all too brief ninety minutes (apparently cut down from nearly three hours), Chan keeps things tight and fast paced, and though he does occasionally wander off into anecdotes, these sit quite comfortably with the documentary style approach. There is a fair amount of action, with some very grueling survival sequences that easily carry more drama and impact than any of their Hollywood counterparts. Along with its plain-faced honesty, the film never falls into elitist art house pretension, and should in no way fail to appeal to the average viewer.
“Mountain Patrol” is ultimately a rewarding experience, and goes beyond its initial emotive premise to explore the very nature of human existence in this cruel, cold world. Easily one of the best films of the last few years, “Mountain Patrol” deserves a global audience, and indeed recognition, as a vital, outstanding piece of cinema.
Chuan Lu (director) / Chuan Lu (screenplay)
CAST: Duobuji …. Ritai
Xueying Zhao …. Leng Xue