Media : This one’s for the antelopes

Mountain Patrol is a surprisingly harrowing pursuit of Tibetan poachers

Somewhere in the aesthetically pleasing but multifariously deadly Kekexili region of the Tibetan plateau, upwards of about 100,000 antelopes are currently living decidedly more carefree lives than they might’ve, say, a decade ago. At least, that seems to be the positive message to be gleaned from the Chinese film Mountain Patrol, which, taken outside of this context, would appear to be quite the downer.

Debut actor Duobuji plays patrol leader Ri Tai, an ex-army officer consumed by his obsessive hunt for poachers in Mountain Patrol.

Based on true events, the story is set in the 1990s and follows a persistent group of men who, funded by their own limited resources and habitually exposing themselves to near-inconceivable dangers, have assumed guardianship of the dwindling herds of Tibetan antelopes targeted for their wool by illegal poachers. Led by a resolute former Tibetan army officer named Ri Tai (Duobuji), the Patrol’s crusade draws them out into the brutally unforgiving Kekexili for weeks at a time and brings them into direct conflict with the poachers, turning the mountain region into a battlefield.

As the film opens, we witness the death of a Patrolman at the hands of poachers. Word travels fast, and by the time the burial ceremony rolls around, Beijing reporter Ga Yu (Zhang Lei) is in town, snooping around for a story. Ri Tai is inhospitable at first, and reluctant to grant an interview, but warms up once Ga Yu suggests that a published story might help raise public awareness of the situation and aid in getting the region declared a natural preserve. Ga Yu is invited to stay, then, and begins to acclimate himself to the Patrol’s lifestyle. (While cutting bread, for instance, he is taught that Tibetans “always point knives toward themselves”). He doesn’t get much in the way of extended introduction, though: The next morning, he is snapped out of bed and hustled into a jeep. Active duty has begun.

From here, the picture shifts gears dramatically. While the first 15 minutes or so are somewhat slowish exposition and set-up, the remaining hour-and-change constitutes, unexpectedly enough, a high-minded, thoroughly engrossing, expertly paced action-adventure. Everything unfolds through the wide, alert eyes of the journalist Ga Yu, and the visuals are, more often than not, stunning. On the third day of patrol, the men encounter a patch of land carpeted with hundreds of antelope carcasses; the sight is simultaneously breathtaking and petrifying.

As the mission progresses, the Patrolmen face sundry hazards (starvation, freezing, quicksand, exhaustion, enemy gunfire), but Ri Tai presses them onward, believing he is hot on the poachers’ trail, obsessed, Ahab-like, with catching the faceless foe he has pursued for years. Along the way, the line between good and evil becomes a bit blurred, as does the concept of inhumanity — Ga Yu is horrified on more than one occasion by the lengths to which Ri Tai and his men will go in the name of justice.

If Mountain Patrol is in part an adventure flick, it is certainly an unconventional one: There are imperfect heroes, there is moral ambiguity, there is no concrete happy ending, in the traditional sense. Such elements, however, are often the ingredients of lastingly effective films, and of these, Mountain Patrol is one. The acting is solid; the directing is more than that, yielding a number of memorable moments, pleasant and otherwise (including a positively mesmerizing, almost beautiful, altogether harrowing bloodless death scene I may never forget). You’ll be fine, though: Just keep repeating, “It’s all for the antelopes.”

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