"Kekexili": that's Tibetan for "beautiful mountains and girls," but should you find yourself inclined to visit, you're more likely to notice the remote plains between those mountains, replete with dust clouds, shallow rivers, ice patches, quicksand, and snowstorms. It's a bleak landscape that, in the mid-1990s was made bleaker by the blight of poachers, who thinned the antelope population from 1,000,000 to 10,000.
Hong Kong import Kekexili: Mountain Patrol is a terse, social-realist crime drama—set in 1996—about the rugged men who volunteered to protect the endangered Tibetan antelope from those ruthless poachers. Writer-director Lu Chuan frames "the last virgin wilderness of China" in panoramic widescreen; 5,000 meters high, the animal reserve Kekexili is replete with untouched spots, but also sullied with bloody business.
An investigative reporter (Zhang Lei) serves as our window into the story by shadowing the mountain patrol, led by tough-as-nails Ritai (Duo Bujie). Ritai could give Ahab a run for his money in the field of unrelenting, self-destructive obsession. The poachers think nothing of slaughtering animals or humans, but the patrol must absurdly police without weapons; their harsh devotion to duty requires them to set aside personal lives and ultimately be willing to lay down their lives for the cause.
Lu broadens the conflict by considering the standoff between man and nature and the moral compromise necessary for the patrol to struggle against the odds (these pilgrims with dirty hands must illegally sell some pelts to sustain the underfunded patrol). Since Lu depicts the punishing, unforgiving determination on both sides of the conflict, the film is not entirely pitiless for the pathetic criminal class, which drives men less by greed than need. Eventually, the picture arrives at an existential question for its heroes: why perpetuate the seemingly hopeless struggle? The answer: righteousness, at any cost.