I first saw Chinese director Lu Chuan's critically acclaimed Tibetan film Kekexili: Mountain Patrol in the unlikely environs of an ornate 19th-century opera house in the Brazilian city of Manaus, deep in the Amazon. The occasion was the 2nd Amazonas Film Festival, in which a film I had co-directed, Dreaming Lhasa, was also participating. Stumbling out of the packed theatre into the steaming, tropical heat of the city – for all intents and purposes, a million miles from the icy wastes of the Tibetan plateau where I had spent the last 90 minutes – my mind was abuzz with conflicting emotions.
There is no doubt that Lu Chuan is a talented filmmaker. Mountain Patrol is a deftly crafted, gritty and uncompromising tale of greed and heroism set within a larger theme of man versus nature. It follows a band of Tibetan vigilantes, led by the noble and single-minded Ri Tai, as they set out across the forbidding northern plains of Tibet in pursuit of a gang of murderous poachers who have killed one of their men and left behind a trail of slaughtered chirus – endangered Tibetan antelopes. As the film progresses, the viewer realises that the point is not so much the tracking down of the hunters as it is the journey itself.
Ri Tai's uncompromising search leads to the death of several of his men – killed not by their enemy but by the harsh vagaries of nature itself, which does not differentiate between those who seek to exploit her and those who are trying to protect her. The end, when it comes, is swift, brutal and unexpected. The camerawork brilliantly captures the harsh and majestic landscape of the high plateau, which is as much a character in the film as are the human protagonists.
So why did the film leave me with such a sense of disquiet?
As a Tibetan filmmaker born and brought up in exile, I have constantly tried in my work to present a more realistic view of Tibet, and to refute the esoteric 'Shangri La' image that has found currency in the Western imagination. Martin Scorsese's Kundun, Jean-Jacques Annaud's Seven Years in Tibet, Eric Valli's Himalaya (also titled Caravan) and Pan Nalin's Samsara have all exploited and perpetuated this myth to their own ends. It struck me that Mountain Patrol is finally no different from these films in that it, too, mythologises Tibet, albeit from an interesting perspective.
A remarkable naïveté
The majority of Han Chinese today is unaware of the political and military events that led to Tibet's annexation in 1959, having been brainwashed into believing that this remote land was always an integral part of their country. In reality, there was literally no Chinese presence in Tibet before the takeover. But this changed rapidly. Initially, only those Chinese who were compelled to relocate as part of the colonising effort – military personnel and civil servants – settled in Tibet. Then, lured by government incentives, waves of poor migrants from the mainland began to pour in, setting up small businesses and gradually transforming the demographic make up of the country. Today, Han Chinese outnumber Tibetans in most major cities and towns of Tibet.
But it is only recently that a very different type of mainland Chinese has begun to show interest in Tibet. Artists, filmmakers, writers and spiritual seekers, not to mention tourists, have begun to flock to the area, drawn by its natural beauty and its Buddhist culture and tradition. Something akin to the interest in Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism that developed in the West decades ago seems to be developing in China today.
The first Chinese film to look at Tibet through a new, more personal perspective – one not tainted by official propaganda – was probably Tian Zhuangzhuang's 1986 film, The Horse Thief. Although groundbreaking for a Chinese film dealing with Tibet in that it takes a realistic and documentary-like approach to the lives of Tibetan nomads, it nonetheless succumbs to a romanticised and condescending view of the place and its culture. Sadly, nearly two decades later, Mountain Patrol falls into a similar trap.
The main protagonists in both The Horse Thief and Mountain Patrol fit a stereotype popular in films about Tibet – that of the silent, noble savage. This is no accident. In the absence of any genuine understanding of Tibetans or their culture, it is easier to see them as archetypes. Lu Chuan unconsciously confirms this in an interview about the film: "Actually, my personal experience with the Tibetans weren't like everyone said they would be; they're alert, but they're actually very open – if they felt your sympathy. When I directed them, they accepted me and cooperated with me. They're that kind of people, like Native Americans and Eskimos; as minorities, they're able to preserve their purity, their nature." This upbeat view, not only of Tibetans but also of Native Americans and Eskimos, betrays a remarkable naïveté, and not a little arrogance, towards the so-called minorities.
This perception of Tibetans as a kind of anthropological curiosity is reinforced in this excerpt from a journal kept by a Chinese journalist, Teng Jingshu, who followed Lu Chuan for a few days during the shoot:
After a few rounds of drinks, the natives started to sing in their language, one after another. As the song came to its climax, everyone would hit their bowls with their chopsticks and sing together. All of a sudden, I felt like I had understood the true meaning of the movie, I felt euphoric, as if my soul had been set free. The rest of us started to sing in response to the natives.
It is not surprising, therefore, that although the portrayal of Tibetans in Mountain Patrol is sympathetic, it is essentially one-dimensional and patronising. In this, Lu Chuan is no different from a Western filmmaker such as Eric Valli, who offers a similar, taciturn-yet-heroic stock character in Himalaya, a film that also uses a superficial Tibetan motif to explore the relationship between human and nature.
This facile engagement with Tibet in films is even more pronounced when it comes to representations of the country's Buddhist culture. For example, a scene of a 'sky burial' – the Tibetan custom of chopping up their dead and feeding the parts to vultures – is de rigueur for any film purporting to reveal the 'real Tibet'. This ritual, with its suggestion of the macabre commingled with the deeply spiritual, never fails to titillate the novice Tibet aficionado. Horse Thief has such a scene. So does Kundun. Valli dwells on it in Himalaya. Neither can Lu Chuan resist the temptation, and in Mountain Patrol viewers are treated to yet another sequence of limbs being hacked off and thrown to waiting vultures.
But the stereotyping of Tibetan culture is only one of Mountain Patrol's flaws. More disturbing is the fact that there is absolutely no context to the film. It is set in a Tibet that is curiously apolitical. There is no indication of a Chinese presence, let alone any representation of Chinese authority. The bad guys here are Hui Muslims. The only Chinese character in the film – the Beijing journalist through whose eyes the story unfolds – is neutralised by the fact that he is half-Tibetan and can speak the local language, and is thus soon accepted into the group.
For an audience that has no knowledge of Tibet's recent history, the film presents the country as a mythical Eastern version of the Wild West. Here, the rule of the gun prevails. Bandits operate with impunity. A man must take the law into his own hands, and only the brave survive. Either this points to a serious breakdown of Chinese control in Tibet – which is far from the case – or the filmmaker has chosen to avoid dealing with an uncomfortable reality.
Lu Chuan undoubtedly had to tread a delicate line while making Mountain Patrol to avoid running afoul of the Beijing authorities. Although China firmly controls Tibet, the government remains especially paranoid about the area. Nevertheless, one would hope that as China grows in economic strength and engages with the world on multiple levels, a younger generation of intellectuals – filmmakers such as Lu Chuan – would break out of the cocoon of propaganda within which they have been brought up, and confront the complexities of Tibet's situation with objectivity and reason. Sadly, on the strength of Mountain Patrol, this is not yet the case.
In the end, it is all the more ironic that, while Mountain Patrol focuses on the attempts of a group of Tibetans to save the quintessentially Tibetan chiru from being wiped out by indiscriminate hunting, the creature itself has been adopted by China as a mascot for the Beijing Olympics. The symbolism of this act is stark: like Tibet, the chiru is now officially Chinese.