Chiru, or Tibetan antelopes, inhabit one of earth's most remote regions ... a four-mile-high Tibetan plateau amid the Himalayas. One might assume, then, that they could exist in peace, spared the incursion of the modern world. But their harsh environment has condemned them to commercial desirability, as the chiru possess a fur finer and warmer than cashmere. (The wool is reputedly so fine that a shawl woven from it can pass easily through a finger ring and cost upward of $15,000.) Tens of thousands of antelopes have been slaughtered by poachers for their valuable pelts.
In the early 1990s, a volunteer group of Tibetans began to patrol the Kekexili region, seeking to stop the illegal killing of the antelopes. As the poachers were heavily armed ... automatic rifles being the preferred wool-gathering tool ... the efforts of the patrol often resulted in deadly encounters.
From these real-life events, Chinese director Lu Chuan has crafted a simple, but almost hypnotic drama. Mountain Patrol: Kekexili presents a representative foray of the patrol deep into the mountains. The ragtag group of less than a dozen men is led by Ritai (Duo Bujie), and accompanied by a sympathetic Beijing journalist, Ga Yu (Zhang Lei). The inclusion of the outsider is a basic, but effective narrative device, allowing the patrol to explain every aspect of the situation. (National Geographic is a co-producer, and there's a whiff of educational about the film.)
Not that Mountain Patrol is a wordy film. A few well-chosen moments of casualness convey the both the bonds and intensity of the patrol. The actors, many of them nonprofessionals, have few lines, but convey much in their facial expressions and body language. And understandably, Chuan lets the land do a lot of his work, often framing his shots so that the players are nearly lost in the vastness of the stark landscape ... barren tundra surrounded by high jagged mountains ... becoming impossibly small warriors.
At times, Patrol has the feel of a revisionist Western. The film depicts two groups of men waging a war in an impossibly huge, uncivilized space. One side is fighting for a moral cause, the other for free commerce, even as both are helpless to the unforgiving environment. It's also a film that begins in senseless violence, and seems likely to end thusly: There's a foreboding heaviness throughout.
For once, the Chinese are not the villains: The poachers are Tibetans (though they supply an overseas demand). Most of the men the patrol captures are skinners, former shepherds who lost their livestock to droughts and now rely on this black market for their subsistence living. Thus the fight has aspects of us vs. us, which complicates the black-and-white morality of the cause. Much like the white-hat cowboy eventually discovered in late-career Westerns, the patrol is forced to resort to the tactics of its enemy in order to win the larger battle.
Despite the prosaic conflicts of Patrol, the alien landscape of the Kekexili gives this drama an almost dreamlike feel. Reflecting back, I was surprised at how much action had occurred in the 90-minute film; it had felt meditative and moody (though always engaging) to me. This is neither a bang-bang Western nor a drum-beating inspirational film. Yet at its sober conclusion, we learn that the actions of a few men have immeasurably helped the elegant and near-extinct chiru. Score one for the good guys.