Saving the world, or even trying to, is a thankless job. Sometimes the earth doesn't want saving. Sometimes it just wants to swallow you up whole.
Take the poor do-gooding animal preservationist clawing at the dust as the sand sucks him under in Lu Chuan's ''Mountain Patrol: Kekexili." He's alone in a vast, arid expanse of plateau in the Kekexili region of Chinese-controlled Tibet, well above sea level. He will be missed, even if no one will ever really know what happened to him.
Though contemplatively paced, the film is actually a sort of action thriller that recounts the true story of a non-activist, nongovernmental volunteer outfit whose men risked, and in some instances sacrificed, their lives to save antelope from poachers, who in the '70s were banned from hunting them.
Over the years, we're told, the antelope population in the region had sunk from the millions to the thousands. The animals' meat and pelts are coveted. After poachers kill a ranger in cold blood, a young Beijing journalist named Ga Yu (Zhang Lei) is embedded with the mountain patrol, following them in pursuit of poachers. He contributes another handsome face to the group of weathered mugs, the most serious of which belongs to Ri Tai (Duo Bujie), the noble and fearless man in charge.
Almost immediately, Ga Yu discovers that protecting the animals and thwarting the poachers is not so much a job as a vocation of the soul. They're at war -- and not as an army, either, but as an extended family selflessly, almost religiously, committed to their task.
A mission always entails leaving the women behind, and braving the chilly, arid climes, only to show up tardy at crime scenes. A jarring expanse of carcasses and the vultures that pick at them are usually proof of poaching. On one such gruesome occasion, the men respectfully cremate the remains. By their count, they burn or bury 10,000 a year.
As much as ''Mountain Patrol" dramatizes a moral struggle, the film is not a lament for a losing battle. Lu is in awe of these warriors and the forbidding landscape they traverse. Eventually, in one exciting sequence, the rangers capture several poachers. As things then go wrong, what we have on our hands is the makings of a western.
Lu shows us man against man, one side philosophically opposed to the other. But the rangers' humanity proves to be a liability. The poachers subsist on cunning. And the discreet but crucial shifts in the power dynamic do nothing to mollify the sinking feeling that the world can be unkind.
Not only does the patrol battle poachers, it's constantly up against the terrain, too. One magnificent, albeit depressing, sequence has the rangers on the chase in the increasingly thin Tibetan air. Experiencing man's physical futility in these nasty natural conditions (that quicksand!), one has to ask, ''Who's the villain here?" The sight of earth indifferently devouring someone, just like that, is enough to put a hole in your joie de vivre. Never has a movie so soberingly made the fight to save life and the struggle to hold on to it seem so futile.
But Lu can see a glint of hope within the deflating big picture. The Chinese government did come to its senses and, symbolically at least, acknowledge the galling depletion of animals in the Kekexili region. The Tibetan antelope is one of the official mascots of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.