'Jinpa' ('Zhuang si le yi zhi yang'): Film Review | TIFF 2018

Courtesy of TIFF
A Tibetan meditation on killing and karma.

The sixth feature from Tibetan director Pema Tseden ('Old Dog') was produced by Wong Kar Wai and is set on the Kekexili Plateau.

Accidentally, a Tibetan trucker kills a sheep with his vehicle before picking up a hitchhiker who says he’s on his way to kill a man, on purpose, in Jinpa (Zhuang si le yi zhi yang), the sixth feature from Tibetan director Pema Tseden (Old Dog). Based on the novel The Slayer by Tsering Norbu as well as the story I Ran Over a Sheep by Pema himself, this is an intriguing if austere art house item that should please lovers of slow cinema with a more mystical edge. Somewhat surprisingly, this tiny indie was produced by Jet Tone, the production company of wuxia and melodrama master Wong Kar Wai, though this connection certainly can’t hurt at festivals and in niche distribution. Jinpa premiered in Venice in the Horizons program and bows in Toronto in the Contemporary World Cinema section.

The mono-monikered poet and actor Jinpa (Soul on a String, Tseden’s Tharlo) plays a truck driver also called Jinpa who is traversing the almost monochrome Kekexili Plateau, the highest plain in the world with an average elevation of roughly 16,000 feet. With his jeans, leather jacket, mirrored sunglasses, jet-black mane and unkempt facial hair, Jinpa looks like the rock star Johnny Depp would have been had he been born in Tibet. The character's musical taste, however, is unexpected, as he keeps listening to a tape of the Italian evergreen "O Sole Mio," except this version, sung by Tashi Punder, is in Tibetan rather than Italian.

There’s no other traffic on the dusty and very windy road for miles, so Jinpa is shocked when he hears a terrible noise and it turns out he killed a sheep. He feels guilty enough about his act to load the animal corpse onto his truck so he can take it to a temple. But way before he reaches his destination, he picks up a stranger (Genden Phuntsok) in traditional dress who is headed to another town in the same direction. Jinpa tries to make conversation, but the other guy isn’t much of a talker, until he explains the purpose of his trip: He has finally located, after 10 years, the murderer of his father, so he’s going to kill the man. Suddenly, the elaborately decorated dagger, strapped to the man’s leg, looks a lot less innocent.

Since the men aren’t headed to the same town, at a certain point Jinpa leaves the hitchhiker at a fork in the road. But the purpose of the stranger’s visit as well as the odd coincidence that he too killed something that day, albeit accidentally, clearly haunts Jinpa. The connection between the killings is made mainly through Pema’s mise-en-scene and Lu Songye’s desaturated and boxy, Academy ratio cinematography, such as in a gorgeous shot of the two men in the truck in which only half of the face of either man is visible at the lateral extremes of the image while the dead sheep finds itself in the center of the composition, visible through a window that looks out onto the back of the pickup. Just through carefully arranging the elements in the image, death literally is at the center of the tale.

The film’s first half feels like a relatively naturalistic drama, with Jinpa delivering his goods, asking a holy man for advice on what to do with the dead animal — “Animals have souls, too,” Jinpa explains — and then visiting a lover, whom he pays, irony of ironies, with lamb meat he had to buy, since there is no way he is eating the meat of the animal whose life he accidentally took. The movie's second half veers into more unusual territory, as Jinpa decides to visit the town where his passenger said he was headed. With the help of a friendly local bar owner (Sonam Wangmo), he tries to locate the man. It is revealed that the future criminal, who comes from the Khampi region, is also called Jinpa, which makes the connection between the two men even more obvious. But is the trucker out to stop him if it isn't too late already, to catch him in flagrante delicto or does he just want to know whether his namesake went through with his plan and succeeded?

Here again, the cinematography gives some clues, such as when a flashblack in sepia tones is inserted which supposedly shows what happened in the lady’s tavern when Jinpa the murderer appeared. Except the conversations in the background are verbatim the ones Jinpa the truck driver heard when he arrived a day later. Do the two men share the same dream? Is one dreaming of the other, or have their dreams and concerns somehow converged? Are both Jinpas meant to illustrate the duality of man, out for revenge on one day and morally upright and pious the next? Or is this bare-bones story, with just a small handful of characters, an illustration of the idea of karma? There are no definitive answers, but Pema clearly extends an invitation to the audience to ponder not only the characters but also the actions they committed or are contemplating. 

With the cinematography also contrasting the cold and harsh exteriors with the glowing and warm interiors, Jinpa benefits from modest but extremely precise and effective production values. And, let's face it, it isn't every day you get to hear "O Sole Mio" in Tibetan.

Production companies: Jet Tone Films, Shanghai Tang Dynasty Communications
Cast: Jinpa, Genden Phuntsok, Sonam Wangmo
Writer-director: Pema Tseden, screenplay based on the novels The Slayer by Tsering Norbu and I Ran Over a Sheep by Pema Tseden
Producers: Wong Kar Wai, Jacky Pang
Director of photography: Lu Songye
Production designer: Tenzin Nyima
Editors: Jin Di, Chakdor Kyab 
Music: Lim Giong & Point
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons), also Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
Sales: Block 2 Distribution

In Tibetan
86 minutes