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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

High in the mountains of Tibet, a life and death struggle has been raging for decades. It involves roving groups of poachers, a small band of volunteers and antelope that once numbered in the millions. This true story has inspired a new Chinese film. It's called KEKEXILI, that's spelled K-E-K-E-X-I-L-I, MOUNTAIN PATROL.

Film critic Bob Mondello says it is an environmental thriller.

BOB MONDELLO reporting:

The vistas are impressive, even seen from the windows from a bouncing, racing jeep, clear skies, breathtaking mountain terrain and an enormous herd of antelope that the jeep's occupants are gunning down with machine guns.

(Soundbite of KEKEXILI)

MONDELLO: They're poachers and a few moments later, they shoot the mountain patrolman they tied up before their rampage with no more hesitation than they had shooting the antelope, at which point the opening credits start to roll and a Chinese journalist explains how he got assigned to cover the volunteers who protect the herds of kekexili.

(Soundbite of KEKEXILI)

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

MONDELLO: The journalist lays out the background. Once enormous herds of antelope had been reduced by the 1990s to a few thousand animals. They're valued for their wool called shahtoosh, which can only be harvested by skinning them. A single shahtoosh scarf requires the killing of three antelope. And as the herds are thinned out, the wool becomes more valuable in a land of impoverished mountain people with few other ways to support themselves.

The only obstacle to the poaching is a small band of volunteers who, with the Chinese government's approval, though not with any money or assistance, form a mountain patrol that levies fines, confiscates guns and vehicles and keeps as many hides as it can from reaching the marketplace. The leader of the volunteers, a rugged, fiercely committed man named Ri Ki, allows the journalists to ride in their jeep as they head into the mountains.

(Soundbite of KEKEXILI)

MONDELLO: The trip is a revelation, at first, for the majesty of the Tibetan landscape and later for the harrowing sight of hundreds of carcasses left skinned and rotting on its hillsides. The volunteers do their heroic best, intercepted skinners they've arrested many times before, burning carcasses and tracking poachers, knowing that their own lives are ever in the balance, that they are at the mercy not just of profiteers with automatic weapons, but of the elements, quicksand, snow, air so thin that running just a few steps leaves them breathless, winds so forceful it has stripped the landscape bare.

(Soundbite of KEKEXILI)

MONDELLO: The magnificent countryside of KEKEXILI is a character in the drama of the mountain patrol, much as western landscapes were in the films of John Ford. And the struggle that plays out in Chuan Lu's epic is similarly spare and primal, the men strong, their life unforgiving, the stakes high as they ride the range in big sky country halfway around the world.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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