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The Seafarer of the Desert

Black Hawk Down shook American audiences with its hyper-realism and non-stop violence. While Lu Chuan's new film, Kekexili, may not be quite so graphic, few films this brutal and testosterone-fueled have ever been produced in the Chinese mainland, let alone shown in domestic cinemas (and like Black Hawk Down, there are a lot of AK-47s in this film).

Lu, 33, heard of volunteer patrols that formed in 1992 to protect the endangered Tibetan antelope from poachers in Kekexili, an animal reserve in Qinghai Province, and felt a spark of inspiration. "The story of the patrol in Kekexili really shook me. I wondered why people would choose such an existence," Lu says, referring to the harsh conditions and risks the patrol faces. Lu made six trips to Kekexili over a span of two years to produce the film, which, though not a documentary, reflects a further development of the realist style that won him accolades for his previous film, The Missing Gun. Kekexili is based on the true story of a Beijing reporter who followed the patrol in 1994.

"It's very difficult to shoot out there," recounts Lu, who interviewed former patrol members and poachers alike. Many of them acted in the film and even doubled as bodyguards for the crew, as poaching still occurs on the reserve. Lu and many of his crew suffered health problems due to the harsh conditions and high altitude in the area. Lu himself suffered a mild heart attack. The determination to make the film also mirror's the patrol's determination to protect the antelope. "They are not environmentalists," Lu explains. "They barely make any money. So why would they choose such a life? I haven't found the answer." The film makes some under-developed nods to Tibetan culture, but it's more about men in a broader sense.

The film, then, joins the ranks of the age-old story of blind, masculine determination along with Moby Dick and The Perfect Storm. This simplicity may perhaps put some people off. And though there are clear good guys and bad guys in the film, it doesn't offer any clear-cut moral. The
patrol resorts to selling pelts themselves, and there is a stirring scene where an old man explains that he resorted to poaching to survive. Lu himself resorted to some ethically questionable tactics to achieve realism: he used real Tibetan antelope heads and pelts to create dead antelope for the film, and though he denies it, there is a rumor that the crew attached Tibetan antelope horns to another species of endangered antelope and shot it to death in a poaching scene.

Though the Venice Film Festival rejected the film, it is still sure to make a stir. Lu, like so many of his peers, has few regrets. "I don't know how I made this movie," Lu gushes. "I used my heart to record something that touches me. I feel like I've taken off my clothes and laid down to feel the ground."

Kekexili was opened in local cinemas on Oct 1.

Stills of Kekexili:

(thatsmagazines.com October 25, 2004)

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