Most artists tend to romanticize nature, not understanding that what is stark and forbiddingly beautiful is also likely to be fatal for just those same qualities. The clean, pure desert, the deep, blue sea, the high mountains, and arid plain—they look great in pictures, but woe to the man who finds himself there alone. Not so director Lu Chuan, who unfolds this blunt, clear-eyed crime tale in the high plateau region north of Tibet's Himalayan range. Kekexili is a nature preserve some three to four miles above sea level. The region's indigenous antelope are being slaughtered by poachers, guts tossed in the dust for vultures to eat, the pelts brought to market for sweaters worn in faraway Beijing. Based on true events during the '90s, Patrol relates how Tibetan-Chinese locals form a vigilante band to stop the poaching. They have no government support, no money, limited bullets and supplies. Jeeps break down in the wilderness, or sink into salty, thawing lake beds. You can die of thirst or cold, or be sucked into quicksand. Or the poachers might just shoot you in the head with an AK-47.
Our guide to this harsh climate is a Beijing journalist (Zhang Lei), who arrives as a slain patrolman is chopped up by Buddhist monks for vultures to devour in a sky burial. He tags along on a pursuit mission by the cheerful squad and its charismatic leader (Duo Bujie, a kind of Asian Humphrey Bogart, weary and obsessed). Their adversaries are rarely seen, although we watch as they fire through Jeep windows at herds of antelope. Patrol is something like an old cowboy chase movie through the wilderness, and the high-spirited patrollers could be taken from John Ford's stock company of players—they even break into song and dance at one remote camp. But when a poacher's bullet cracks through the window, wounding a man, the hardness returns to their eyes. This is deadly stuff.
Lu previously made the superior cop flick The Missing Gun (screened at SIFF '03), and he's not sentimental about these lawmen. When they need hospital money (pulmonary edema strikes one guy during a huffing, puffing, grindingly slow high-altitude foot pursuit), their eyes turn to a cache of recovered pelts. The journalist might well wonder if he's not actually among outlaws, all of them armed. And when they catch some poachers, they're poor peasants, not the ruthless ringleader. One old guy, a former shepherd, protests that he has no choice: "Now the grasslands have turned to desert." Is overgrazing to blame? Or Chinese settlement policies? Patrol is too focused on men in a hostile, unforgiving environment to ponder such questions. It's drama stripped down to the treacherous ground.