National Geographic World Films: Mountain Patrol: Kekexili
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About the Production:
A Set-Visit Diary from Journalist Teng Jingshu

I heard that Lu Chuan was making a film named MOUNTAIN PATROL: KEKEXILI. I initially thought it was about the Tibetan antelope, a native wild animal. Not until late September of 2003 did I find out that it was a film about the Mountain Patrol of Kekexili; a striking story about the people living on that land.

I had an impulse to visit Lu Chuan on location because I wanted to see for myself both the land of mystery and the man who was making a movie about it.

I traveled from Shanghai to Germu via Lanzhou, heading west. I met the crew on October 1, just in time for the second site transfer, from Germu to Wudaoliang. The altitude jumped from 2,900 meters [1.8 miles] to 4,700 meters [2.9 miles]. Wudaoliang is close to one of the most important shooting sites—Chumaer River of Kekexili.

On the way, our car cut through the vast desert plain. I spent a total of six days with the crew. In those six days, I saw herds of Tibetan antelope galloping on the barren land; I saw the film group shooting in the icy river when the outside temperature was -10 degrees Celsius [14 degrees Fahrenheit]; I saw actors cry out loud in the chilling weather, and I witnessed a director at such a point of exhaustion that he was unable to speak.

Although six days may seem like a short visit, the trip was long enough to convince me that this film was going to be something extraordinary.

Oct. 1. First Impressions of Germu
It was a 17-hour train ride from Lanzhou to Germu. The train spent the whole night traveling though the uninhabited area of Qingzang Heights. It was pitch black outside. As the altitude increased, I started to experience all kinds of discomforts. I would wake up every two hours in the swaying cabin, feeling short of breath and dizzy. I managed to take some medicine, but I could not fall asleep.

When I arrived at Germu at 11 a.m., it was not as cold as I thought. The serviceman came over to inform us to be prepared for the acute mountain sickness (AMS) during the night. I told him I experienced it last night.

When I arrived at the hotel, it was silent. The crew was still asleep. They had just finished a night shoot. The first one to greet me was the chubby assistant production supervisor, Guo Tao. He told me the director was still checking the dailies and that he would take me to him shortly. There were a few people with him, who all appeared to be Tibetan natives. Guo told me they were the actors in the film.

I was shocked the first moment I saw Lu Chuan, the director. It was a sleep-deprived face, with messy hair like a punk. He gave me a firm handshake and said: "There you are." The last time I saw Lu, it was the previous May when he came to Shanghai to promote his film, The Missing Gun. He looked like a mild-tempered intellectual at that time, which was in stark contrast with his appearance this time.

As I entered Lu Chuan's room, I glanced at the picture playing on the monitor. In the film, some natives sat in a circle, smoked cigarettes and chatted. The next shot was a man appearing from the distant horizon with a rifle on his back. The snow-covered mountains in the background made him look small but determined. What surprised me was the atmosphere in the film was so different from the recent domestic films I had seen. The cinematography had a simple purity about it, and it was quite breathtaking. I could feel the sincerity of the film from that first glance, as well as the work put into it by the creative team.

Somebody summoned the core members to a meeting. I found it was an almost all-male crew. They discussed their long trip for the following day to Wudaoliang, which is on Kunlun Mountain with an altitude of 4,700 meters [2.9 miles]. They had already contacted the army barracks there, which was the only possible campsite. The producer informed them all to be prepared for tough conditions. At that moment, I saw the serious look on Lu's face.

Lu told me in private that his instinct told him he could not get the real Kekexili if they did not go up Kunlun Mountain—the uninhabited area of Kekexili.

It was freezing cold out in the wild of Kekexili, and one scene of the script required the actors to swim without pants. Lu said in the prep meeting, "There are two things that concern me the most: one is the altitude might be too high for us, and the second is the low temperature. I hope everybody in the production department will treat this very seriously and give each other the highest cooperation."

Many people were quite anxious about moving to Wudaoliang. For myself, it was just the beginning of the adventure.

Oct. 2. Living in Wudaoliang
We left Germu at 8 a.m. and headed for Wudaoliang via the Qingzang roadway. I rode with the director and chatted with him during the trip.

We talked about why he was making this film, as well as the extremely tough conditions of the shoot. At times during the conversation, Mr. Lu would become silent and stare off into the distance. He told me that the theme of the film gave him strength, and he actually enjoyed the tough conditions. "This film will enrich your experience and change your life," he said.

I asked him about those crew members who had already resigned during production, and his response was that this was moviemaking and most of the guys were there just for a job. It was unusual for someone to go above and beyond to fulfill a dream.

On both sides of the road there were barren lands. In the distance, there were those beautiful snowy mountains, but the view would never change—it gave you a kind of fear that you would never escape the siege of the barren lands.

After four hours, we arrived at Wudaoliang barracks. The main building had three floors, and looked just like a school building. Because the number of rooms available was limited, only the core crew and females could stay in the main building—the rest of us had to stay in the flats. The living conditions in the main building were poor at best. The whole barracks only had one restroom, and it was outside the building.

But nobody complained. After we settled down, everyone lay down and rested. It was hard for anyone to stay cheerful at 4,700 meters [2.9 miles] high. The make-up artists started to suffer headaches and nausea; the producers were also deflated; even the natives felt tired and took naps. The barracks, although full of people, were extremely quiet.

I was having the worst time in my life. The headaches were killing me. I wanted to vomit but there was nothing to come out, and it seemed I could never catch my breath. The girl staying with me told me that when they started to shoot at the altitude of 3,500 meters [2.17 miles], many people got ill.

At dusk, somebody shouted that there were large herds of Tibetan antelope nearby. Lu drove out to have a look. It was cold on the heights, and in the setting sun, we spotted about two dozen Tibetan antelope. Lu asked the photographers to capture the scene before it was dark.

After that, a group of people went scouting by the Chumaer River. It was the site of a major scene, and they had to make sure nothing went wrong. It got too dark outside, so we had to return to the barracks for help. I could not keep up anymore, and I vomited repeatedly on the way back, which alarmed the director and Mr. Cao Yu, the director of photography.

The first night at Wudaoliang, I had to resort to my oxygen bag to sleep. Like everybody else, I spent the whole night in utter discomfort.

Oct. 3. The View is Better by the River
Most of the crewmembers had dark circles around their eyes when they awoke the next day. AMS tortured everyone, both in body and spirit. However, there was still work that needed to be done—back at the Chumaer River.

The temperature was only 3 degrees Celsius [37 degrees Fahrenheit] when we set off at 10 a.m. Although it turned to 9 degrees Celsius [48 degrees Fahrenheit] after 90 minutes, it was still chilly when we arrived by the riverside. The river wriggled quietly across the undeveloped land, and the pure blue sky and snow-covered mountains in the distance made everything look surreal. Zhao Xiang, the associate producer, put his hand into the river and pulled it out fast. "It's so cold," he said.

Based on this reaction, the core members returned to the army barracks to discuss the logistics of shooting the river scene and being able to keep the actors safe at the same time. They continued their discussion when they went back to the riverside in the afternoon. When they saw the local actors jump into the river without clothes, they decided to start rolling right away so as not to waste the actors' excitement.

Filming is such a team effort that it takes time to set up all the equipment and be ready to shoot. Unfortunately, by the time everything was set up, the strong wind had returned and caused problems with the sound recording. Lu Chuan was forced to give up the day's shooting even though he would have preferred to continue, as all the actors were in such high spirits. None of the actors had shown any hesitation or fear about the freezing river. Lu Chuan was impressed with his cast: "They are really something!" he declared.

I talked with some of the actors that night. Apart from Zhang Lei, Qi Liang and Duo Bujie, the majority of the actors were non-professionals, and this was their acting debut. When I asked them whether this shooting process was too hard for them, the answer always was, "It's worth it for a good film." I had heard similar responses again and again over the three days.

Still, the AMS continued to cause widespread misery. Cao Yu, the DP, had to go to bed very early; he was unable to speak at that point. The cameraman, He Lei, hadn't slept for days because of his heart problem. The poor condition of the accommodation at the army barracks made everything worse. It was so difficult to breathe when you went to the bathroom or just washed your face in the extremely cold nights.

Oct. 4. Sing All the Songs We Know
In the morning, I awoke with the most severe headache I had ever experienced. I could barely swallow some pills. I thought at first that I was the weak one, but later I realized everybody else was depending on medication as well.

In the morning the actors went to the riverside to practice. The wind was very strong, and as the actors rushed to the other side of the river, rifles in hand, we all felt the intensity of the scene. The crowd was very excited; everyone was talking about how good the actors were and how well the shooting would go. It was a busy scene on set but I was still suffering tremendous pain. I inadvertently fell asleep only to be woken by the director. It was 3 p.m. by then, and overcast, and was the perfect time for shooting.

It was rolling time. In the scene, the guards spot the poachers and hunt them down. The shouting, the gunfire, the crossing of the river and the big chase—everything was perfect. It got dark during shooting, and the temperature dropped severely. It was not yet 5 p.m., but it was already -3 degrees Celsius [27 degrees Fahrenheit]. I put on every piece of clothing I could find, but it was still not enough. The actors had to wear nothing but their underwear, and cross the icy river with bare legs.

It was so cold out there! Assistants would bring coats for the actors immediately after each shot, but the lips of the men had already turned blue. It is hard to imagine any creature that could survive this kind of coldness. When the shooting finally ended at 7 p.m., all the actors were on the verge of collapse. I touched their coats, which had already frozen like marble.

Everybody thought the actors would be out of commission for at least a day after that. To our greatest surprise, they all appeared that evening and were still in good spirits, laughing and singing, saying that they were all right and that they could start to shoot again the following day. The whole room was packed with people—producers, photographers, sound engineers and actors. Everybody was happy being together, just like old friends. 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. One song after another, we sang every song we knew.

This was a life-altering experience. I wanted to cry, and I sang till my voice failed me. For one brief moment I forgot about the altitude and all the coldness and pain—I just felt warmth and tranquility. Lu told me later that they experienced the same thing every time they had shared meals with the real Kekexili patrolmen. I slept sweetly after this night of joy and happiness.

Oct. 5. Frozen to Tears
I haven't taken a bath for five days. So today I made up my mind to wash my hair downstairs. It was not easy to wash one's hair at this altitude. I could hardly breathe, and when I came back to my room, my hands and feet were frozen. There was a public bathroom on the other side of the street. Most people preferred the discomfort of not bathing ever since somebody had experienced the water supply being cut off mid-shower.

The "crossing river" scene was still not completed. Usually the crew set off around 1 p.m., and started shooting at 3 p.m. However, the weather in Kekexili is unpredictable and can change from sunny to hail in mere minutes. It was especially cold that day. Clouds covered the sky and it was snowing. The river was colder than ever, but the actors still had to jump into it.

By 7 p.m. some actors were too frozen to speak. Then shooting had to stop, and all the actors were sent to local hospital emergency room. Lu Chuan was silent all the way back. I understood his dilemma at having to keep to the schedule but also having to take care of the actors.

All of the seven actors who had gone into the river were now lying down one by one on hospital beds receiving infusions. They told the two assistant directors who visited them that night that waiting on the riverbank between scenes was worse than rushing through the river. The wet body would go numb. They joked with one actor, Zhao Yisui, because he was literally frozen to tears. Zhao was a little bit embarrassed but argued that he could not help it. I had seen his face turned to livid purple with cold during shooting.

Zhang Lei, who played the part of the reporter in the film, told me: "I couldn't stand the pain of the AMS in the beginning and dreamt about going back home everyday. It took me one whole month to get used to everything, and now I just wanted to complete my work well."

No one ever spoke about quitting even though they were suffering. I started to understand what Lu called "life fulfillment." In Kekexili, the crew faced a life challenge, just like the characters in the film.

Oct. 6. When Things Get Worse...
We are still shooting the river scene. Standing in the howling wind, looking at the distant snowy mountains, I felt like I was at the North Pole.

The crew had learnt a lesson from yesterday and allocated people to take care of the actors. They built a tent with a fire inside, and the actors would rush into the tent after each shot.

Lu was getting really sick from the strenuous work. He was suffering severe chest pain and could hardly move or speak. He persevered, however, checking on monitors with one hand on his chest.

Finally, Lu was taken to the hospital and connected to an IV. To compound the situation, the agent of the lead actor called to say that his client had to be released by October 20 for another film. Shooting was originally scheduled to be finished by October 20, but now they had to prolong it into November. As the problems piled up, everyone worried, including a non-crew member like me.

It would be the last night for me at Wudaoliang. Lying in bed, I couldn't fall asleep. I knew the tremendous difficulties the crew faced. I couldn't imagine how they would solve these problems, but having seen the determination of everyone in the group, I firmly believed they would find some way to succeed, and in doing so those challenges would make them stronger. It was a true test of the soul....