Kekexili: Mountain Patrol (Chinese: 可可西里; pinyin: Kěkěxīlǐ) (ཨ་ཆེན་གངས་རྒྱལ། in Tibetan) is a 2004 Chinese film directed Lu Chuan that depicts the struggle between vigilante rangers and bands of poachers in the remote Tibetan region of Kekexili (Hoh Xil). It was inspired by the documentary Balance by Peng Hui.
Despite its realistic, detached style, the film evokes the dramatic Western genre in several ways. This includes the portrayal of a masculine, harsh way of life and culture of honor at the frontier of civilization; but also the depiction of a rugged, majestic landscape (captured to great effect by cinematographer Cao Yu) that becomes a star of the film. This characterization is made explicit when the characters profess their love for their homeland, whose very name evokes "beautiful mountains, beautiful maidens" to them.
The film was inspired by the Wild Yak Brigade, a real-life volunteer group that patrolled the Tibetan Plateau during the 1990s, and events that took place between 1993-1996.
The film opens with the summary execution of a patrol member by poachers and then follows, in quasi-documentary style, reporter Ga Yu (played by Zhang Lei) who is sent from Beijing to investigate. In Kekexili he meets Ritai (played by Tibetan actor Tobgyal, or Duo Bujie (多布杰) in Mandarin) at the Sky burial of the deceased patrol member. Ritai is the leader of the vigilantes who, despite poverty and the lack of any government support, roam the land to protect the endangered Tibetan antelope from extinction. Admitted into the patrol, Ga becomes a sort of embedded journalist in the hunt for the poachers across Kekexili.
The patrol team hunts down a family of poachers and learns from them the whereabouts of their gunman and leader. But the long journey means they can no longer afford to follow on with the entire team and captured poachers. They release the poachers and send one of the cars, driven by Liu Dong (played by Qi Liang), back with the injured and sick team members to the hospital. He did not have sufficient funds for the medical fee and Ritai tells him to sell some antelope skins to raise the money. Ga questioned the sales of antelope skins and learns from Ritai that they have received no funds from the government for at least a year.
The two remaining vehicles continue the search but one of them breaks down. Ritai ask them to wait for the other car to return and pick them up, but severe weather forces them to trek their way home. Liu Dong, travelling alone on the way back to join Ritai with his vehicle fully stocked with supplies, is swallowed by dry quicksand when his vehicle gets stuck.
Ritai and Ga finally finds the gunman and leader. But, outnumbered and outgunned, Ritai is killed by the poacher. Ga is free to go as he is not a patrol member. Ritai's body is brought back home for a Sky burial.
Captions at the end of the movie state that Ga's reports on the atrocities in Kekexili shook the nation. After the authorities initially arrested four patrol members for selling pelts, public pressure had them released, but the patrol is nevertheless disbanded. A year later the Chinese government declares Kekexili a "national nature preserve" and establishes a forestry bureau to protect it. The captions further state that antelope numbers grow back to 30,000 at the time of the movie's release.
The film was shot on location in Kekexili, in both Mandarin and Tibetan languages. Except for the two leads Qi and Tobgyal, all of the cast is made of Tibetan amateur actors. Despite the low budget, development benefited from much corporate support, being funded in majority by Columbia Pictures, Warner Bros. and Canon.
The harsh conditions took their toll on the film crew with several members falling ill, including director Lu. Also Alex Graf, production manager from Columbia Pictures, was killed on location in a car accident at age 32.
In order to re-enact the shooting death of a Tibetan Antelope, the filmmakers acquired a Mongolian Gazelle (a second-class protected species under Chinese law) from a nearby reserve, affixed Tibetan antelope antlers to it, and then shot the animal to death on-screen while two cameras rolled. According to lead actor Zhang Lei, the crew was upset about this—as some of the crew had grown affectionate towards the animal actor. The animal was later buried.
Kekexili was among the very few Mainland Chinese films to win the Golden Horse Best Film Award in Taiwan's Golden Horse Film Festival, in 2004. It also won the Special Jury Prize at the Tokyo International Film Festival in the same year.
The film had a profound impact in China in bringing attention the region and the plight of its inhabitants and endangered species. This led the Chinese government to offer much-delayed support to the protection of local species, and played a large part in the proposal of the Tibetan antelope as a candidate for official mascot of the 2008 Summer Olympics.Golden Horse Film Festival, 2004
Best Cinematography — Cao Yu
Best Director — Lu Chuan (nominated)
Best Actor — Duo Bujie (nominated)
Best Original Screenplay — Lu Chuan (nominated)
Tokyo International Film Festival, 2004
Special Jury Prize
Grand Prix (nominated)
Golden Rooster Awards, 2005
Best Film (shared with On the Mountain of Tai Hang)
Berlin International Film Festival, 2005
Don Quixote Award
Sundance Film Festival, 2005
Grand Jury Prize (nominated)
Huabiao Film Awards, 2005
Outstanding Director — Lu Chuan
Hong Kong Film Awards, 2006
Best Asian Film