If your image of Tibet is one of pacifist monks and droning prayer, here's a thrilling action-film antidote. "Mountain Patrol," a gritty drama about armed eco-vigilantes on the high plains of Tibet, is a nicely judged mix of fatalistic Sam Peckinpah Western and ravishing National Geographic documentary.
Ruthless poachers with high-powered rifles and jeeps are exterminating herds of Tibetan antelope for their rare and precious wool, scattering the carcasses for the vultures. The species is on the edge of extinction, and its only protection is a band of paramilitary irregulars without enough money, manpower or firepower to combat the hunters effectively.
The environment is hostile, with thin air, pitiless sun, deadly quicksand and lethal ice storms. Yet the men fight on. The mountain patrol's Ahab-like leader (Duo Bujie) is a tough, charismatic ex-Army captain who needs troops and a mission -- even a suicidal one -- to maintain his sense of purpose.
Their story is told by a Beijing photojournalist (Zhang Lei) who covers the story of the patrol on a casualty-strewn campaign against their pragmatic, pitiless enemies. The deeper they voyage into the desolate moonscape of the Kekexili region, the more elusive their righteous cause becomes. They're not empowered to arrest the poachers, just authorized to confiscate the antelope pelts, and those are the only items of value they have to barter for fuel and supplies. In the end, their selfless protective operation becomes a tragic mirror image of the outlaws' depredations.
An epic story of white-knuckle tension in a setting of harsh, unearthly beauty, it's the kind of story Hemingway might have told if he'd made it to the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
Rating: Unrated. Contains scenes of action violence and animal carnage. In Mandarin and Tibetan, with English subtitles.