(aka "Kekexili: Mountain Patrol' or 'Mountain Patrol" )

 

directed by Lu Chuan
China 2004

 

For all its faults (witness the Blu-ray, MiniDisc, Beta, etc. debacles), Sony is a company that releases movies that North-American audiences would otherwise not see. Sony is based in Japan but also owns Columbia Tri-Star, a major Hollywood studio. Therefore, Sony is responsible for distributing numerous Asian cinematic gems here in the U.S., including most of Chinese master director Zhang Yimou's efforts. While some movies do suffer from scissor snips (see Hitman, which became the cut-down The Contract Killer), Sony usually leaves its acquisitions un-touched (the same can’t be said for the Weinstein brothers, who habitually butcher anything that isn’t in English).

Sony’s latest Chinese offering is Kekexili, released in the U.S. as Mountain Patrol: Kekexili. Kekexili is a noteworthy project for several reasons. For one, it is the first Mainland Chinese production to win Best Picture at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards. This must’ve made Chen Shui-bian, the separatist president of Taiwan, hella pissed. The movie also won Best Picture at Mainland China’s Golden Rooster Awards. Red China and Free China actually agreed on something!

The movie is also noteworthy in and of itself--it is a stunning, devastating tale about workaholics who defend the environment not out of idealism but because of a hard-bitten sense of ethics. Yet, strangely, the protagonists’ modus operandi IS a kind of idealism, one of action rather than of talk (i.e. bullshit). Movies like Kekexili feel real rather than manufactured because you see people who are so busy doing what needs to be done that they have no time for the swaggering and the posturing that so-called “heroes” in American movies exhibit (Miami Vice comes to mind).

In Kekexili, a reporter based in Beijing is sent to Tibet to report on the activities of a patrol group dedicated to saving Tibetan antelopes. The patrolmen want the government to create a wildlife preserve for the animals. In the meantime, the patrolmen operate without official sanction. During the 1990s, the Chinese government was busy with the rapid shift to capitalism on the east coast and had few resources to deal with issues in the western interior.

The movie is completely direct and succinct. When it begins, we see a patrolman captured by poachers. The patrolman sits inside the poachers’ SUV, bound and helpless, as his captors mow down Tibetan antelopes with machine guns. The patrolman valiantly tries to distract the poachers by throwing his body against theirs, but he can’t prevent the slaughter. Later, he sits on the ground, numbed and tearing, as he watches the poachers skin the dead animals. The patrolman is then executed while under the impression that the poachers are going to let him go.

All of this happens before the movie’s title appears on the screen. The viewer is thrown right into the story’s world with no fuss. Right away, we see what’s at stake--the livelihood of poverty-stricken and desperate individuals, the determination of the morally good, and the unforgivable destruction of nature due to human vanity. However, Kekexili is much more than a simple man-vs.-nature parable. The patrolmen who protect the antelopes are decent people who mostly let their prisoners go free after fining them, but their lives and jobs would be greatly facilitated if they simply killed poachers on sight. On the other hand, for the patrolmen to kill the poachers would mean that a modern sense of justice would not be satisfied. Of course, the poachers have no qualms about killing the patrolmen, so the real moral dilemma arises--is one willing to commit a crime for the greater good? The patrolmen are not without faults; after all, they sell some of the pelts that they confiscate even though trafficking is illegal. Otherwise, they have few sources of funding for their operations.

Kekexili is based on true events, and it feels like a documentary, in part because this environment feels so alien to people who’ve never been to Tibet. This doesn’t resemble one of those boring “talking heads” or “educational” documentaries that give the genre a bad name; rather, it is tense, gripping, involving, and moving like the docudramas directed by Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, United 93) and 9/11. The movie doesn’t have a lot of hand-held camerawork, so the “documentary” touch is mostly-attributable to the script and to the editing. Essentially, the stripped-down, no-nonsense tone leaves no room for unnecessary embellishments. Everything is presented matter-of-factly, including an amorous relationship between one of the patrolmen and a companion girl in a local bar.

The most-harrowing sequences in Kekexili takes place without any music, diegetic or non-diegetic, and the most-unsettling of these features a man drowning in quicksand. As the pitiless earth swallows him, the patrolman struggles violently before quietly accepting his fate. He takes a few last gasps of air before he disappears completely, without a trace. The lack of music shows how much the filmmakers trust intelligent audiences to know what to feel, and the lack of music drives in that sense of dread and isolation. Out there in the desert, the man is utterly alone in a pitiless world that doesn’t care that he is one of the good guys, and such totality is devastating.

Because of its outdoors vistas, Kekexili will remind viewers of movies as disparate as Lawrence of Arabia and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. However, in one key respect, Kekexili is unlike long epics set in vast wastelands. The movie’s length of 89 minutes is a strength as well as a slight weakness. There isn’t a lot of context, and we don’t get a clear sense of the overall poaching trade. Ten more minutes of footage would’ve give viewers a better understanding of what motivates the patrolmen’s devotion to duty or immersed viewers in other aspects of contemporary Tibetan life. Still, Kekexili doesn’t wear out its welcome, and that’s a virtue at a time when nearly every other movie is way too damn long.

Yunda Eddie Feng

Posters

Theatrical Release: 1 October 2004

Reviews    More Reviews  DVD Reviews

DVD Review: Sony - Region 1 - NTSC

Big thanks to Yunda Eddie Feng for the Review!

DVD Box Cover

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Distribution

Sony

Region 1 - NTSC

Runtime 89 min
Video

2.40:1 Original Aspect Ratio

16X9 enhanced
Average Bitrate: 5.40 mb/s
NTSC 720x480 29.97 f/s

NOTE: The Vertical axis represents the bits transferred per second. The Horizontal is the time in minutes.

Bitrate

Audio Dolby Digital 5.1 Mandarin/Tibetan Chinese, Dolby Digital 5.1 French
Subtitles Optional English and French
Features Release Information:
Studio: Sony

Aspect Ratio:
Widescreen anamorphic - 2.40:1

Edition Details:
• trailers

DVD Release Date: 29 August 2006
Keep case

Chapters 28

 

 

Comments Video:
The 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen video transfer is a stunning example of how good standard-definition DVD can be. The picture is sharp and smooth, and it offers strong colors and great detail. It looks like it is a progressive transfer. Some night-time scenes were a bit problematic (I saw some “wet blobs”), but this is a great example of how HD-DVD and Blu-ray are not necessarily leaps and bounds better than SD-DVD.

Curiously, the video transfer is generally free of print damage until the end credits. When the screen fades to plain white text on a black background, you can see fuzzes and scratches.

Audio:
A wide though generally quiet and subtle Dolby Digital 5.1 Mandarin/Tibetan Chinese track mirrors the video’s stark effectiveness. The viewer is engulfed by a desolate expanse from both visual and aural perspectives. Most of the track is dominated by ambient noises, though the surrounds and even the subwoofer have some kick during snow and sand storms. The dialogue is a tad difficult to follow, though this is mostly because the actors mumble their lines. (This shouldn’t be seen as a negative as it is a realistic reflection of how taciturn men communicate.)

You can watch the movie with a DD 5.1 French track. Optional English and French subtitles as well as optional English closed captions support the audio.

Extras:
You get nothing except for trailers for other Sony DVDs. It’s a good thing that Sony didn’t brand this a “SuperBit” disc and (over-)price it as such.

--Miscellaneous--
A glossy insert advertises other Sony DVDs
.

 - Yunda Eddie Feng

 

 





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DVD Box Cover

CLICK to order from:

Distribution

Sony

Region 1 - NTSC


 




 

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