Few films that begin with a lot of shooting and very little talking go on to be as profoundly solemn, abstracted, and contemplative as Mountain Patrol: Kekexili, a fact-based Chinese feature about an agonizingly protracted battle between poachers and preservationists. But while the film's opening scenes, in which grim, grubby hunters gun down a herd of antelope and the man protecting them, are more intense than most of the story that follows, they're also entirely representative of the movie's stark bleakness. Filmed in long, quiet takes across gorgeous, all-but-empty landscapes, Mountain Patrol feels more like Gus Van Sant's Gerry than like the cops-and-robbers thriller its plotline suggests.
Set and shot in the remote, high-altitude Kekexili region of Chinese-controlled Tibet, Mountain Patrol follows a Beijing reporter (Zhang Lei) as he joins a group of vigilante patrollers out to prevent the illegal slaughter of endangered Tibetan antelopes by men hoping to sell the valuable pelts to foreign markets. The patrol's leader (Duo Bujie) explains that his men haven't been paid in a year and lack government funding or standing; their lack of equipment or resources is equally plain. But for the most part, the poachers they pursue in a multi-week hunt across the barren mountains are equally impoverished and equally close to the end of their ropes. Ultimately, the contest is so drawn-out and so low-key that it would seem low-stakes as well, if so many lives weren't on the line.
Mountain Patrol never addresses why Duo and his men are so willing to toss safety to the bitter, frozen winds and leave their homes and families to fight an unwinnable war on a staggeringly huge field of engagement. But when Duo pointedly chides Zhang for slicing handheld meat with the knife aimed safely away from himself, instead of toward himself like a Tibetan, Duo's stoicism, quiet nationalist pride, and penchant for self-destruction all seem briefly clear. And so does the stern patriotism that Duo, his men, and Mountain Patrol itself rarely place on graphic display. The film's somber beauty is recommendation enough, but the way political, personal, and symbolic tensions seethe silently below the surface turn it into riveting drama.