This year's national holiday was almost turned into a film festival with so many features competing for audiences: the long-awaited 2046, which has taken four years for director Wong Kar-Wai to shoot, New Police Story, featuring Jacky Chan, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban were all screened.
But amongst the obvious blockbusters was a more singular gem written and directed by Lu Chuan, a director of less than 40 years of age. Ke Ke Xi Li, with a cast predominantly composed of local Tibetans rather than big box office names, stunned audiences when it premiered.
The Western-style adventure has already won the Golden Rooster Award, the Chinese equivalent of America's Academy Awards, and will feature at both the Tokyo and Venice Film Festivals. After the movie’s screening more than 10,000 people signed to support Ke Ke Xi Li’s nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2005 Oscars.
The movie, which had a budget of 10 million yuan, has already earned US$800,000 for its overseas copyright, and is expected to make 10 million yuan at the Chinese box office.
So, what has inspired this fervor?
The truth behind the tale
There were more than one million Tibetan antelope or “Chiru” in Ke Ke Xi Li before 1985, but the price of their fine wool rose with demand for pashmina shawls. Poachers swarmed to the wilderness, called Hoh Xil in Mongol, and the number of Tibetan antelope was slashed to less than 20,000 in just a few years.
From 1993 onwards, local Tibetan and Han people formed a volunteer patrol team to protect the animals. They left their families to risk their lives battling against well-armed poachers in the wilderness. Two of their leaders, Sonam Dargyi and Taba Dorje, sacrificed their lives for the cause along with other team members, killed by poachers.
After their deaths China founded Hoh Xil Nature Reserve to protect Tibetan antelope and named a natural protection station for Sonam Dargyi. His daughter, Kunsang Yangtso, was later to star in Lu’s film, believing it to be a fitting way to commemorate him.
The movie starts with the death of a member of the patrol team and records their tracking of the poachers. They find more than 1,000 antelope corpses on the way and meet with a series of difficulties: broken down jeeps, running out of gasoline, shortage of food and mountain passes sealed with heavy snow.
The film’s heroes, including Ritai the team leader, are believably flawed; sometimes they are far from heroic, and gain money to fund the team from dubious sources. But, as Ritai says, “The faces and hands of pilgrims who prostrate themselves to show their respect to Buddha couldn’t be dirtier, but their hearts are so clean.”
Keeping it real
Lu Chuan was inspired to create Ke Ke Xi Li after seeing a documentary called Balance by Peng Hui, who went to Hoh Xil in 1997 and spent three years shooting it. He also wrote an article titled Protecting Hoh Xil, which recorded his friendship with Taba Dorje, the team’s second leader. Tragically, Taba Dorje was shot to death before Peng Hui could show him the article.
Peng refused to watch Ke Ke Xi Li at first, fearing he would be too sensitive to any changes in plot or portrayal of characters. But Lu reassured him and Peng gave in, saying to reporters afterward: “The movie made me recall many friends and affairs in Hoh Xil. Lu Chuan didn’t disappoint me. ”
The film tells the story from a reporter’s eye and, to help authenticity and credibility, employed unknown and even unprofessional actors instead of movie stars. As Lu Chuan said, most of our actors were “dragged down from the back of a horse.” There was also no effort to glamorize the actors – they are portrayed warts and all with ragged clothes and muddy faces.
Despite the poignancy of the story, the movie steers clear of sentimentality. Lu Chuan said he wanted to give his audience more room to contemplate rather than churning out yet another tearjerker that they would quickly forget.
A brutal wilderness
Hoh Xil is one of the world’s harshest environments and shooting took place from August to November in the area of Wudaoliang. Here it is 4,500-5,000 meters above sea level with inclement and unpredictable weather.
Almost everyone involved got altitude sickness and various other illnesses. At the end of shooting, of the initial 108 workers, just over 60 remained on site. Very difficult scenes, including those involving quicksand and stunts, were performed in desperate conditions with unprofessional, but committed and highly talented, actors.
The end of the movie is significant for many reasons, not least because it’s the first time a celestial burial has appeared in a movie, being deemed a taboo up to now. Its beginning also includes the Tibetan antelope’s first appearance on film.
The ending is very far from the happy one many in the audience may yearn for. But Lu says he thought this over for a long time and decided it was the right thing to do. Ritai’s idealism, he says, leads him inevitably to his end – his ideals are simply too far from the unpleasant reality of the situation.
(China.org.cn by Chen Lin, October 27, 2004)