Mountain Patrol


China / 2004 / Tibetan & Mandarin

Directed by Lu Chuan

With Zhang Lei, Tobgyal, Qi Liang

Still from 'Mountain Patrol'In the funerary rites of Tibetan Buddhism, a dead body is dismembered and left on a flat rock, out in the open, to be picked clean by vultures. After that, the bones are ground up with tsampa (barley flour), mixed with yak butter tea, and fed to the lesser birds that follow. These “sky burials” were practiced for generations as an alternative to cremation, since firewood is so scarce in much of Tibet. Although sky burials have been declining in recent years (partly due to a decrease in the population of birds of prey in many areas), they’re still widely used, and are one example of the Tibetans’ intimate and ritualistic connection to their environment.

In the film Mountain Patrol, we follow a group of heavily-armed volunteers who work to root out poachers and prevent them from killing endangered Tibetan antelopes, whose fur is prized by foreign markets. At one point the men happen upon the bones of probably hundreds of the fallen beasts, a scene mobbed by vultures. The poachers, rather than hunt the animals individually, prefer to shoot them en masse and skin them on the spot. Part of this vigilante group’s job is counting the carcasses (and subtracting from the unhappy figure of 10,000 – the approximate population), collecting them in a pit and burning them with gasoline. It’s a ritual closer to Buddhism of other cultures, ones which favor cremation. The long-haired leader of the group, a taciturn and magnetic man named Ritai, recites prayers for the falling animals, and people are gathered around the pit with the solemnity of sending off a loved one into the next world.

Mountain Patrol brings us to a place remote enough that party law hasn’t permeated. The photographer Ga Yu comes from Beijing to chronicle the struggle of the mountain patrol against poaching. He seems an archetypal 90s adventurer-journalist, rough and ready, pointing his camera directly into the action, often before considering the repercussions. He also harbors grandiose ideas of bringing an awareness of what’s going on here to the outside world, hoping the result will be a wildlife sanctuary for the animals. Immediately he is invited to join the group on a mission that will take weeks. He doesn’t have time to think about it; he must ride alongside Ritai or miss his chance.

On a high, vast plateau ringed by clouds of dust, the mountain patrol tracks the movements of the poachers. They are often too late, sometimes getting close enough to get dinged up by snipers on a distant crest. They come across evidence of the poachers, or capture the unfortunate peasants who have aided them. The landscape is flat, but only in a geographical sense. For the bands of men driving across it, every meter traveled bears countless holes, bumps and furrows that rattle the screws from their jeeps. From the get-go Ritai is an ambiguous figure, and only appears more ambiguous the longer Ga Yu spends with him. While the mountain patrol has the approval of the government, they are self-financed, and we begin to see how: they fine peasants for helping the poachers (always giving a receipt), and even deal in confiscated pelts to raise money for medical bills. What began as an adventure for Ga Yu, the rip-roaring pursuit of the “bad guys”, fades to a total gray. Ritai is too concrete in his dealings to come across as an idealogue, and his volunteers are far from pure believers in his cause. They risk life and limb, but they’re just as rooted in the reality of Tibet as their enemies, just as aware of social lines and trespasses, and of the necessities of survival.

In Kekexili, where the film is set, the scenery is wide, too wide even for the camera’s long shots. Interested in how landscape and setting figure into the representational regimen of third world films, Teshome H. Gabriel writes about a “nostalgia for the vastness of nature” that can be seen as a “symbolization of a Third World thematic orientation, ie the landscape depicted ceases to be mere land or soil and acquires a phenomenal quality which integrates humans with the general drama of existence itself.” Here he is referring to a ‘middle cinema’ that sentimentalizes the third world, but doesn’t strive to achieve all the conventions of first world films. In some ways Mountain Patrol may fall into this category, although it’s far from the oppositional orientation of classical Third cinema. True to Gabriel’s characterization, it does tie the landscape and the people together, equating them in a unified theme.

Still from 'Mountain Patrol'Depending on where you go in the world, environmentalism isn’t always the chaste, wholly benevolent impulse that its armchair supporters imagine. In fact it isn’t a single impulse at all, but takes many forms, many of which are unsavory to Westerners who wonder: “why can’t they just stop hunting endangered species?” Like an investigative news article, the film problematizes and complicates simple readings of a situation. Both in its cultural and environmental/ethical dimensions, the film has an aversion to easy conclusions. In some cases, as in this one, environmentalism can be part and parcel of a culture-level warfare. Looked at this way, the mountain patrol unit is defending a dying culture like it is defending a fallen animal from the inevitable scavengers.

The poachers are people trying to make a living in a human environment that’s deteriorated around them due to money and the scarcity of resources. Tibetans found themselves violently pulled into a different (and often indifferent) nation whose rules and agendas make little sense to them. Of course these facts of life for Tibetans are barely addressed in the film, which takes place where much of the influence of Han Chinese society, aside from language and technology, isn’t felt. This lunar wilderness where you could be miles from the nearest person is depicted as a final forum for the historical Tibet, a place where whoever has more guns, more men, and enough fuel to get home, essentially rules the mountain.

One reason why it’s always tricky to decry poachers is because their practices are often responses to dire circumstances created by imperialism. It would be hard to tell someone with a starving family not to kill a lion for some money. It is the mafiosi getting rich, the middlemen and their clients, whom we can safely condemn. Those of us in the ruling world, either indirectly responsible for the situation or at least sitting atop it, have no place criticizing poachers, unless they come from our world and kill for fun. The militiamen of Mountain Patrol are from the same society, or at least an adjacent society, to the enemies they’re trying to stop. They alone seem to have the right, or at least, more of a right, to be indignant about the depopulation of the antelope.

Nonetheless, watching the film, one starts to consider what is most important: the sanctity of cultural practices, or the alleviation of people’s suffering? That turns out to only be a surface debate, one that we Westerners can, comfortably and with affected authority, juggle in our living rooms. Each set of questions gives rise to more; they’re never-ending. We start to wonder what is actually at issue – is it the majestic antelope? The traditions of this region of Tibet? The livelihood of disenfranchised people? Do people have a right to kill any life-forms? The answer to that, as always, is: it depends on whom you ask. Even the essential battle is questionable, elusive. Like for the journalist in the film (a real-life character, it just so happens), who felt relatively assured when he started out, it no longer seems possible for the audience to stand on a justified side in the matter, a safe island of ethics. It’s all quick-sand.

Still from 'Mountain Patrol'So the marvels of the film’s essential balancing act start to become apparent. The problems it shows aren’t for a foreign audience, or even a mainstream Chinese audience, to understand. Like the blank, desolate vistas of Kekexili, things appear simple but of course couldn’t be farther from it. The plateau’s white sky dissolves into a crystalline firmament that stretches to eternity. We are in a glass globe looking up. Mountain Patrol has the integrity to leave the Tibetans’ spiritual connections to the animals opaque, while at the same time nearly abnegating the mystification, the sentimentality, the dissonance that a contemporary-Western reading of it could produce.

From its opening, when a band of poachers executes one of Ritai’s men along with a herd of clueless antelope, we know we are among the slippery slopes and shabby pitfalls of guerrilla warfare. The vigilantes with whom Ga Yu is entrenched behave no better – and at times much worse – than the poachers. Sometimes they don’t appear to have a choice – such as when, running out of fuel and food, they are forced to leave about two dozen captives in the middle of nowhere to die. At other times their brutality seems sadistic and excessive, or their ineptitude (or enthusiasm?) leads to unnecessary casualties.

While film doesn’t stalk the plateau after mirages of universal values, it also doesn’t box its characters into their cultural specificity. Writer-director Lu seems quite attuned to the sense of ethnic identities mingling, of traditions that remain powerful and those that have corroded without swansong. The world outside Tibet has certainly left its mark on the people, and they bear the battle scars of its parenting. At the same time the film isn’t as politically-engaged as Pema Tseden’s Old Dog (2011) which more or less centers on the exploitation of traditional culture by the developed world. Here that sort of heartless extraction is presiding, but rarely referenced, rarely seen directly. The poachers remain shadowy figures, just out of reach – that is, of course, until they are finally reached; they’re just as rough, weathered, businesslike and trigger-happy as the militiamen. At this point there is no fiction of good and bad, and so the confrontation lacks any drama.

Many of the people the militia hassles, abuses, and threatens, aren’t even the antelope killers, but mules recruited to smuggle the fur out of Tibet. The militiamen regularly stop truckloads of people and slice open their jackets looking for downy contraband sewn inside. Sometimes they find it and sometimes they don’t. But how can these desperately poor people be treated to vigilante justice like hardened criminals? The militiamen probably don’t have any other choice, since their ultimate goal is to stamp out the practice entirely.

While they perhaps come from some of the same communities as the poachers, whose ranks are only partly composed of outsiders, the protagonists had the choice of staying home and not risking their lives for wild herbivores on a distant plateau devoid of human habitation. What drives them to go up there, to hurt and kill other people, is wholly separate from the protective, proprietorial guilt that we feel towards a natural world that’s been ransacked so that our population can explode across the globe. On high Kekexili, where there are few people – where, as one character notes, you are constantly the first human being to step on a particular bit of ground – and populations are tremulous, the interface between people and animals is still as important and as transparent as the demarcation between civilization and nature has, traditionally, been. In other words, the relationship isn’t taken lightly by anybody. There is human mysticism swirling about it, but the film doesn’t try too hard to explain that. It is closer to what makes us human than anyone can articulate. A unity among animals, you could say.

In her lengthily-titled 1995 book Primitive Passions: Visuality, Sexuality, Ethnography, and Contemporary Chinese Cinema, Rey Chow lays down a series of observations about the origins of what she calls “primitive passions”. She begins: “the interest in the primitive emerges at a moment of cultural crisis.” The resulting origin fantasies, she continues, “are played out through a generic realm of associations… the animal, the savage, the countryside, the indigenous, the people… which stand in for that ‘original’ something that has been lost.” Although Mountain Patrol, above all an adventure film, doesn’t consciously set out to recreate the Tibet that has been lost, it inadvertently references it. The film’s elements of primitivism, aside from the people’s generalized, innate deference for nature, are in the religious rites that we see depicted.

While Chow’s book, discussing the inward exoticizing that takes place in Chinese cinema, came out before Mountain Patrol, she would no doubt see much of her argument applicable in the film. The cultural crisis that she mentions, though, may not occur exactly at a nexus of dislocation happening between a people and their traditions. More often that dislocation can be slow, an attrition, and subsequently looked back upon later. It could be that the crisis that infuses the film’s nods to the traditional or primitive is not one of Tibetan culture, but of Chinese pluralism in general, whose dubiousness gets periodically shaken up by civil unrest.

The film is allowed to resist the popular narrative of a Chinese ethnic mosaic, which, perhaps owing to “fifth wave” cinema, has passed from one-dimensional propaganda to a normative front whose goal is to equate, to level; not to openly distort socio-political idiosyncrasies, but to submerge them. This is due in no small part to the existential emptiness of its location and its tracking structure (like a road movie), the hardened singularity of its vision, which it shares with the poachers’ hunters. Granted Mountain Patrol does do a fair bit to satisfy the basics of its genre, the tension and brutality, the tough-guy conventions that it needs to exist and be watched. But the heroism in it isn’t identifiable with modern conventions. It isn’t even anti-heroism, it’s the predatory kite of the drama-biosphere – cold-eyed, unequivocal, no-bones-about-it. In the logic of the world, notions of society and duty are more important than the human lives that keep them in existence, and are thus, like viruses, transported around and communicated.

In a strange way it bears comparison to the South Korean film The Yellow Sea (2011), which, on the one hand, unquestioningly, almost somnambulantly, fulfills the demands of its male audience with ghoulish, insensate action and violence, but on the other hand embarks on a complex discourse about displaced or nationless people. That film’s protagonist is an ethnic Korean in northern China’s Yanbian prefecture who, out of economic desperation, takes a job carrying out an assassination in South Korea while searching for his missing wife.

Like Mountain Patrol, The Yellow Sea unearths more realities than it glosses. It summons controversies about culture and ethics, then revealing them not to be controversies at all, but byproducts of the relentless subterfuge enacted by societies on people. And, also as Mountain Patrol does, that film situates at least part of its point of view within marginalized minorities (neither of which the films’ respective directors belong to), not to give another mainstream offering an exotic face to wear, but to look critically upon what people experience in China, in this day and age. Their uneasy social portraits set them apart from “patchwork” films, and indeed, from most genre films.

Still from 'Mountain Patrol'In Mountain Patrol‘s conclusion, it can’t help but thread the Tibetan’s now decades-long struggle into the workings of Chinese paternalism. As it turns out, the real-life photojournalist, who becomes the protagonist of the film and upon whose accounts it is based, did supposedly help to bring about government sponsorship for the protection of the Tibetan antelope and a dedicated force for stopping their poaching. The time of the vigilantes has now effectively ended. While scrapping on their home territory with other villagers, the mountain patrol was really expunging an enemy from without. While the film avoids idealism and essentialism, it also touches little on the troublesome undercurrent of how the struggle of Ritai and his gang is somehow a result of society trying to keep itself together. Perhaps they are powerless to do it on a village level, and so defend the pristine. Edward Abbey said, “we cannot have freedom without wilderness,” and idealistic Tibetans would no doubt agree, although those are two things that we in the West rarely think of as endangered.

Listen to Tibetan folksongs from any region. Even if you don’t understand a single word sung, you are sure to recognize the imitation of bird’s calls interspersed in the verses. The ways in which the people see and represent their connections to nature are certainly in Mountain Patrol, but so are the ever-more complicated interactions that arise when foreign interests have drifted into their domain. It could be that one day no one will know the significance of the antelope, or why anyone would try to protect them. More than defending a sacred animal, the efforts of Ritai and his team, for a few years in the 1990s, seem to have been about preserving the sanctity of a besieged land. While far from perfect or ideologically sound, they are nonetheless resistance fighters on the pockmarked terrain of an inward-looking culture. If they did not move when the moment was right, they’d have nothing left to do but to wait for the vultures to spiral in and pick their society clean – and not in the favorable way.


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