Yet another report from the ongoing New York Asian Film Festival. This one being a review of the hugely acclaimed, and just announced on HK DVD, film Kekexili by Josh Ralske.
One interesting thing about covering a great festival like Subway Cinema’s New York Asian Film Festival is that no matter how little you know about the film they’re showing on any given night, your expectations are relatively high. While this reduces the chances of being pleasantly surprised, it’s still a nice feeling to know you’re almost certainly going to be entertained. I knew very little about Kekexili walking in. The film’s writer-director, Lu Chuan, previously made The Missing Gun, which I haven’t seen. The wildly exuberant Grady Hendrix introduced Kekexili with tremendous enthusiasm, but he always does that. Just prior to the screening, Grady asked me what I had thought of Marathon, and when I told him, he expressed shocked dismay, and (jokingly?) suggested that I have a stone where my heart should be. So I was determined to be open to whatever emotional experience Kekexili offered. Thankfully, it turned out to be austere, unsentimental, morally complex, and grimly realistic—in short, much more likely to have a cold fish like me reaching for his Kleenex than the slick button pushing of Marathon.
Kekexili is, like Marathon, based on actual events. From Mainland China, the film tells the story of Ga Yu, a reporter from Beijing who in 1996 travels to the eponymous region on the border of Tibet, where some local men have organized a civilian patrol to fight the poachers who are decimating the region’s endangered population of Tibetan antelopes, prized for their pelts, which are then exported, to be sold as (once trendy) shahtoosh shawls. As Ga Yu arrives in a remote town, a member of the patrol has recently been coldly executed by the poachers, and the taciturn leader, Ritai (Tibetan actor Duobuji), is heading out on another patrol, determined to find those responsible. Ga Yu convinces Ritai to let him tag along by suggesting that a story in a Beijing newspaper might spur the Chinese government to take more forceful action to protect the antelopes.
So the group leaves on their perilous, high altitude journey. From the film’s opening, with the aforementioned murder, it’s a harrowing trip. Beautifully photographed by cinematographer Cao Yu, and naturalistically performed by a mostly nonprofessional cast, Kekexili captures the deprivation and danger of this harsh land, and the necessary ruggedness of the people who live there, with impeccable clarity. Filmmaker Lu tells his story visually, for the most part, with exemplary economy. He doesn’t spend any more time than needed on characterization. He leaves it to his audience to figure out what motivates Ritai and his team to risk their lives in order to protect the animals. Whatever it is, it’s clear that it goes beyond a mere concern for the environment. Ritai ends up completely possessed with finding the gunmen who slaughtered the most recent herd of antelope. He puts his own and many other lives at risk in this pursuit. At the film’s midpoint, Ritai and his men capture a group of poachers, including a kindly old man who tells the patrolmen that he used to be a shepherd, and was pushed into a life of criminality by hard times. The filmmaker doesn’t judge these characters, any more than he does the film’s would-be heroes. It’s clear that on a thematic level, Lu’s primary interest is human, rather than environmental.
There are some wonderful moments of decency that relieve the grimness, as when Yu Ga hands the hungry old man an extra ration of bread, or an extended sequence wherein one of the patrolmen returns home to re-supply, and has an all-too brief tryst with his frustrated girlfriend. There’s also dark wit on display in sequences like a foot chase at high altitude that ends with both pursuer and pursued wheezing and collapsing from exhaustion just a few moments from the start.
With his stoic relentlessness as he travels across a vast wasteland, Ritai reminds me of Jimmy Stuart in one of those old Anthony Mann westerns like The Naked Spur or Winchester ’73—men obsessed to the point of madness with their own sense of justice, who will do what they must, and leap into the very pit of hell to achieve some impossible goal that grows more meaningless with each loss they incur. Lu shows us a world we’ve never seen, and offers potent insight into the cost of being on the bottom end of a global economy. At the same time, with its gorgeous starkness and moral ambiguity, Kekexili is in a league with those great old Westerns.
Review by Josh Ralske.