If director Chuan Lu's film Mountain Patrol: Kekexili had been released last year, as was planned, it would have been one of the five best films of 2005. As it stands, almost halfway into 2006, it's the best film of the year so far.

Inspired by true events, Mountain Patrol takes place in Tibet toward the end of 1996. Decades of poaching have left the Tibetan antelope on the verge of extinction. Every year tens of thousands of antelopes have been slaughtered for their pelts. The only thing standing between the antelope and complete obliteration is the Mountain Patrol, a ragtag group of self-appointed lawmen who traverse the inhospitable terrain of Kekexili, a massive plateau where the antelope feed and breed.

As the film begins, a lone patrolman runs across a gang of poachers, who murder him in cold blood. Ga Yu (Zhang Lei), a journalist from Beijing, journeys to Tibet to report on the Mountain Patrol. He arrives for the somber funeral procession of the slain patrolman and just in time to join Ri Tai (Duobuji), leader of the patrol, as he and his men set out to bring the killers to justice. A former officer in the military, Ri Tai is a man chiseled from stone, who speaks in brief, matter-of-fact sentences. As the mission drags on, the dangers begin to mount: The physical effects of the high elevation, quicksand, snowstorms and the cold-blooded poachers all threaten the patrol. But the biggest threat comes from the grim determination of Ri Tai to do the right thing, even at the expense of his own life and those of his men.

Despite the eastern setting of Tibet, in an era just a decade past, Mountain Patrol is in every way a classic western. Inspired by the vast, sprawling work of films like John Ford's The Searchers, and the gritty ambiguity of Italian director Sergio Corbucci's The Great Silence, Chuan's film is an epic tale of honor and justice in a morally uncertain world. There are also traces of Akira Kurosawa and Werner Herzog: With so much universal truth at its core, this is one of those movies that transcends cultural barriers. Ultimately, it's a tale of innocence lost, as Ga Yu, the idealistic journalist, begins to see the world in all of its shades of gray. Through his eyes—a point of view the audience shares—the complexity of life, death and business as usual on the windswept plains of Kekexili comes into focus. Ga Yu's world, and the audience's, crumbles when he eventualy realizes that the unpaid Mountain Patrol must resort to selling confiscated pelts to finance its mission of protecting the antelope. Sometimes decent men must do bad things to serve a greater good.

Mountain Patrol: Kekexili is a brilliant meditation on the classic hero's journey. Taking from some of the best films of all time, Chuan seamlessly weaves a tale that is at once unique and familiar. The film is bold and beautiful, and no matter what else may come along this year, it won't get much better than this.

Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave., 223-4515. Friday-Thursday, May 19-25. $4-$7.