Jasmine (USA, 2015)
Dax Phelan’s psychological thriller Jasmine begins with Leonard To (Jason Tobin) returning to Hong Kong after an extended break to pursue a position at a marketing firm. Looking over Leonard’s resume, the interviewer is concerned about a recent 8-month blank patch on the applicant’s employment record. Taking its cue from the suspicion aroused by such gaps, Phelan proceeds to omit certain narrative details, which results in a jittery experience once Leonard’s real focus becomes apparent.
Jasmine is as light on exposition as it is heavy on ominous mood, but early scenes nonetheless provide of sketch of Leonard’s circumstances. He’s trying to get back to some semblance of normalcy following the unsolved murder of his wife Jasmine one year earlier, which prompted a breakdown. Having checked into a cramped hotel room, Leonard wanders around Hong Kong in business attire, leaving white flowers in places that his wife had visited, and reconnects with Grace (Eugenia Yuan), a friend who seems to understand his trauma yet is wary enough to keep him at a remove. Claiming to have moved on from tragedy but still seeking closure, Leonard persistently calls the detective who handled the case to ask if there are any new leads, but launches his own investigation when he spots a well-dressed mystery man (Byron Man) at his wife’s grave, then again at the site of the crime. Leonard obsessively tails the suspect after making note of his car license plate, coming into contact with his quarry’s unsuspecting actress/model girlfriend Anna (Sarah Lian), and wrestling with the urge to take matters into his own hands.
Leonard shares his first name with the protagonist Christopher Nolan’s ‘puzzle film’ Memento (2000) and proves to be similarly unreliable despite also being placed in what is ostensibly a clear-cut revenge story. A few slippages in time aside, Phelan doesn’t rework structure narrative as audaciously as Nolan, but subtly achieves a sense of disorientation by only conveying the most essential background information while remaining fixed to Leonard’s point of view. As Leonard shadows his suspect around Hong Kong, one wonders if he has stumbled on to the person responsible for his grief or if he is manipulating a scenario for catharsis, much like the memory-impaired Leonard of Memento was revealed to be killing a series of John G’s. The suspect here hangs out in stylish bars where he snorts coke in the bathroom, but such decedent lifestyle choices don’t necessarily mark him out as a murderer. Seen largely from a distance, the suspect looks oddly like a more successful version of Leonard with his position at a big company and sharp wardrobe. Leonard is also partial to the Bolivian marching powder, but gets his boost while lurking on street corners rather than in the company of others.
When maintaining his composure, Leonard proves to be an intrepid sleuth, even demonstrating the sly grace of a professional thief when he sneaks into the suspect’s upscale apartment. Is this the skillset of a person who was supposedly a buttoned-down corporate type until tragedy sent his life into a downward spiral? Perhaps not, but then the abilities of protagonists in thrillers rarely hold up to much scrutiny. Meanwhile, Phelan’s canny use of Hong Kong locations (sleekly anonymous business areas and mall spaces, darkened streets, a strangely empty MTR, and nocturnal taxi rides) shows a love of neo-noir – he even makes a Hitchcock-style cameo. Yet for all the film’s style tropes, its limited perspective implies that there’s more here than a nifty genre riff.
In this respect, Phelan is greatly aided by leading man Tobin, who co-wrote the story, commanding attention throughout with a sustained awkwardness that simultaneously invites sympathy and creates an underlying tension. When Leonard tries to strike up conversations with strangers in bars or on the street, Tobin exudes a palpable need for human connection that stems from no longer being able to hit the right social notes to achieve it. Leonard attends a support group for the bereaved, with Phelan focusing on the hands of the members as their fingers twitch with anxiety. These shots reveal the lingering pain of loss, even as their bodies sit upright in a concentrated effort to project strength under duress, and Tobin also utilizes such telling mannerisms, even as Leonard seems to have the upper hand in this game of cat and mouse. In the acting stakes, Jasmine is a one-man show for the terrific Tobin, but with relatively little dialogue and screen time, Yuan achieves a delicately layered performance in a role that actually becomes more integral in retrospect since the film’s twist ending raises further questions concerning Grace’s knowledge of Leonard’s history.
At a time when cinematic storytelling is becoming increasingly saggy with overstuffed extravaganzas wearing out their welcome long before the end credits roll, Jasmine conversely thrives on a taut minimalism which will make riveted viewers want to do an immediate re-watch.