Two men, one a poacher and the other dedicated to catching poachers, run across a valley floor so high in the mountains that there is no vegetation. There is no shelter, no hiding, no reinforcement. Just two men -- one with a rifle -- running, staggering, stumbling and eventually crawling after each other at elevations more than three miles above sea level. Finally they collapse and lay side by side, gasping.
Mountain Patrol is a film that leaves viewers breathless. The title makes it sound like some sort of army film, but it isn't -- even though nearly every actor is a man and nearly every man has a rifle. How to classify it?
Mountain Patrol, writes a reviewer in The Washington Post, "the first Chinese conservationist spaghetti western ever made." Exactly! This Chinese-made film is a gem in several ways: It is not about martial arts or ancient times; it refuses to offer easy clich & eacute;s; and it's filmed in the manner of haiku, both haunting and spare.
The setting is the high northern plains of Tibet, the Kekexili, where nomads and former shepherds now use automatic weapons to gun down the chiru -- Tibetan antelope -- because their fur has become valuable in international fashion circles.
There are almost no people and certainly no law here, so a group of local men take it upon themselves to protect the chiru from extinction by forming the Mountain Patrol. The film examines the shifting grounds of morality and obsession -- as well as sheer survival in a hostile environment -- during the course of one extended patrol.
The characters -- the brooding Capt. Ri Tai, the rest of his patrol and the peasants caught up in poaching -- are engaging. The cinematography is spectacular. The story is lean and fast-moving.
Mountain Patrol generated enough buzz at last year's New York Asian Film Festival that it received limited release in this country last spring. It came nowhere near Spokane, of course. While the DVD lacks even so much as a making-of featurette about the story behind the story (which is based on actual events), at least it's now available locally.