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Mountain Patrol: Kekexili (Chinese; Tibetan)

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There are enough ethical questions raised in “Mountain Patrol: Kekexili” to keep PETA occupied for months. The film comes to us from China, a nation whose government isn’t known for treating people humanely, let alone animals, and is the work of Beijing Film Academy graduate Chuan Lu. It’s based on a story that’s all the sadder for being true.

In 1993, a group of volunteers banded together to patrol the Kekexili region of Tibet and ward off the poachers who had been killing, by the hundreds of thousands, the indigenous antelope. Our story begins in 1996, when the poachers have murdered one of the patrolmen and a Beijing photojournalist named Ga Yu (Zhang Lei) is dispatched to spend time with the patrol and get their story.

The patrol is led by Ritai (Duo Buji), a retired army officer obsessed with stopping the poachers before they wipe out the antelope altogether. He’s a focused man, a cross between Capt. Ahab and an Old West sheriff, with a little crazy-guy-leading-his-own-army thrown in for good measure. The patrol has no legal authority to arrest anyone, only to issue fines and confiscate pelts. But what little authority they do have, they take seriously.

With Ga Yu embedded among them, the group soon has an even greater motivation for stopping the poachers when another patrolman is found murdered. Ritai is now even more obsessed, pushing his men through the barren, savagely beautiful landscape despite having limited fuel and food. We don’t fully understand why Ritai is so driven, but we fathom the consequences: This will end only when the poachers are eliminated or Ritai is dead.

But a curious thing happens. The patrol captures a group of men who work for the poachers as skinners, and we see that these are ordinary people. They aren’t ruthless or evil. They live in a wasteland where survival is difficult. If they can make a few dollars skinning the pelts off animals that someone else has killed, why shouldn’t they?

Indeed, once the patrol confiscates the skins, what happens to them? It would be wasteful to simply throw them away, yet it’s illegal to sell them. Yet money is needed to finance the patrol’s operations. So what’s the “right” thing to do?

The Tibetan mountains and plains featured in the film are exotic and magnificent, unlike any other place on earth, and they are captured nicely by cinematographer Yu Cao. The desolation and quietude of the region, a major factor in the story, is palpable. Who would volunteer to hunt poachers in this forbidding part of the world? Is it worth it? I know what Ritai would say, but I don’t know that Ritai is altogether a sane man. This is an evocative, visually resplendent film, however, with images and ideas that linger in one’s mind long after the movie is over.

B+ (1 hr., 29 min.; Chinese and Tibetan with subtitles; PG-13, one F-word, a little violence, some blood.)

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