Jinpa (China, 2018) [VIFF 2018]

Jinpa (played by actor/poet of the same name) drives a lorry along a Tibetan plateau. He comes across like a truck-driving rock star, dressed in dusty leather clothes with a constantly present pair of shades. One day he runs over a sheep – one that appears to have come from nowhere – and fears the incident’s poor karma will give him bad luck. Soon afterwards he picks up a hitchhiker, a young man also named Jinpa (Kenden Phuntsok) who is on a decade-old mission for revenge.

Jinpa is the sixth feature by Tibetan filmmaker Pema Tseden, with this latest production backed by Wong Kar-wai’s Jet Tone Films. That link alone will gain the film some notice internationally, although while Jinpa feels a like a suitable fit for Wong as a producer, it is also a distinctive work of its own. It is effectively split into two sections. The first and larger portion of the two presents a dryly comedic road trip. The second takes a strange journey into an increasingly dreamlike fantasy. What it all means by the end seems largely up to the viewer to decide.

The film is a solid example of ‘slow cinema’, taking its time to tell a comparatively slight story. The audience is invited to soak themselves in setting, tone and aesthetic, rather than fixate on what actually happens. The scenes are long – most obviously in an early truck scene that lasts more than 20 minutes – with each focusing on minimal detail. In one, Jinpa travels to a nearby monastery to see if having the dead sheep blessed might salve his guilt. In another he visits a girlfriend with a side of mutton – from a different animal, obviously. The events do not quite justify their running time. Ultimately, and despite a great amount of charm, this first half does not feel the sum of its parts. There is not enough plot to fully drive audience engagement, and for this viewer at least it became something of a chore.

It is in the film’s second half that its appeal initially seems to grow enormously. While fussing over the dead sheep, Jinpa grows concerned over the welfare of his namesake. He ultimately returns to the village where he left him to find out if young Jinpa did attempt a revenge killing, and whether he succeeded. In a local tavern the older Jinpa meets a flirtatious young innkeeper (Sonam Wangmo) who last saw the younger vengeful version.

There is less humour to this second part of the film, and a strong sense of spirituality. The camera work becomes more experimental and abstract as the innkeeper relates what she has seen, and the parallel Jinpas become represent a dualist theme. Some of Lu Songye’s cinematography is remarkable.

Here’s the thing, however: it all fails to make too much sense. It might – and hopefully does – make sense to its writer-director, but for the external viewer unarmed with spiritual or religious knowledge it all becomes weirdly impenetrable. On the initial viewing it seems to have something intimate and enlightening to say. As the days go on after watching, however, it all slips into an impenetrable fog. One doubts there is much to say about Jinpa at all.

In the final analysis, this is a shaggy dog story. It goes on. Things happen. It teases an awful lot and then delivers very little. When its 86 minutes wrap up, there is sense that something important was implied. Goodness knows what it was.

Jinpa was shown at the Vancouver International Film Festival.