Many contemporary mysteries cover forensic matters in graphic detail, but hardly any address the spiritual repercussions of murder. However, in Tibetan, karma trumps more mundane worldly concerns. One murder definitely begets bad karma and perhaps another murder to come in Pema Tseden’s Jinpa, which screens during the 219 New York Asian Film Festival.
Meet Jinpa the Tibetan truck driver, who is played by Jinpa, the uni-named Tibetan actor and poet, who gives a lift to a hitchhiker also named Jinpa. Before stopping to pick up the standoffish younger man, Jinpa somehow ran over a sheep, which was odd, considering the desolate openness of that stretch of highway. As a devout Buddhist, the incident clearly shakes Jinpa (the driver). Ye, he initially takes it in stride when the younger Jinpa matter-of-factly tells him he has tracked down his father’s killer to a village on the hardscrabble Kekexili Plateau, so he now intends to murder him in turn.
After seeking prayers and religious guidance for the sheep at the nearest monastery, the older Jinpa retraces his steps, hoping to find the younger Jinpa, but his purposes are not clear. Does he want to prevent the other Jinpa from irreparably damaging his karma, or does he have darker motives? All will not be illuminated through a series of visually striking flashbacks (Tseden’s technique of sharply focusing on the Jinpa in the foreground, while blurring the characters in the background could become widely imitated). Who knows, maybe the Jinpas are the same person?
Tseden is a major world-caliber auteur, well-and-beyond his importance as an independent Tibetan voice and chronicler of everyday Tibetan life. Jinpa the film is a heavy statement, but at times, it is either too obvious or too murky. There is no question Ritu Sarin & Tenzing Sonam’s The Sweet Requiem functions more successfully as a Tibetan revenge thriller, but the visuals crafted by Tseden and cinematographer Lu Songye still demand your attention.
Jinpa (the thesp) is terrific as Jinpa (the elder), creating a persona that is both compellingly devout and world-weary. As Jinpa the Younger, Genden Phuntsok has a screen presence worthy of spaghetti westerns. Yet, Sonam Wangmo steals all her scenes, like you’ve never seen before, as the snarky, but weirdly hospitable innkeeper. Honestly, she could be a star in any country.
Jinpa is an intriguing film, but its meditative merits could also be uncharitably described as “slow cinema.” Frankly, this is the sort of film NYAFF programmers used to mock back in the day, but it is an important work of cinema, so the festival deserves credit for being the first to bring it to New York. Recommended for those who want to be temporarily immersed in the Tibetan landscape and head-space, Jinpa screens this Saturday (6/29), as part of NYFF ’19.