From classics like Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953), Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945) to recent indie films like Konstantin Bojanov’s Ave (2011), the trope of hitchhiking and accidental encounters have been varyingly used by filmmakers to craft road narratives with drama or suspense. But Pema Tsenden’s Jinpa spins-off from a similar structure to expand the scope of thinking about this particular sub-genre. Co-produced by Wong Kar-wai, this Chinese Tibetan-language film deeply engages with the question of fate and identity in a refreshingly new form of the non-Western road movie.
In the remote Tibetan region of the Kekexili plateau located 16,000 feet above sea level, the film focuses on the rugged protagonist, Jinpa (also played by the actor, Jinpa), driving a goods transport lorry with an unassuming self-confidence. On the road, he drinks and smokes intermittently, defecates out in the open, hums along the Tibetan rendition of “O Sole Mio”, and drives on habitually until his truck accidentally runs over a sheep. An ominous atmosphere settles in following this incident and soon after he picks up a wandering man who claims of visiting Sanak to avenge the murder of his father ten years back. Quite uncannily, this dagger-bearing stranger, wearing regional attire, is also named Jinpa.
Throughout the narrative, the two Jinpas share a brief period of screen time. Their conversations are straight from the shoulder and without any artifice. Yet, Jinpa – the lorry driver – becomes increasingly occupied with the story and motivation of his namesake hitchhiker after he drops him off in the middle of the night. Like a spectre, the off-screen presence of the hitchhiker silently grows and pervades the lorry driver’s imagination. This infuses the film with an apprehensive ambience, provoking anxiety about things that are not happening on screen.
The setting of the story and Songye Lu’s cinematography further accentuates the lurking air of mysticism. Shot in a compact 4:3 ratio with washed-off colours and overexposed highlights, there is a peculiar opacity about the characters. They appear stripped of their past amid the vast deserted lands of Tibet. One does not know how the lorry driver’s wife died, why he never puts down his sunglasses and dismisses people asking about it, why he desperately seeks to purify the dead sheep’s soul, who is the woman he makes love with, or the flirtatious lady who manages the tavern. The story unfolds in the immediate present, providing access to interiority and probable pasts solely through the expressions, gestures, and circumstantial reactions of the characters.
Jinpa is a thriller with a meditative pace that ends with the inner exploration of the protagonist(s) – an exploration that is not overtly illustrative, and delightfully so. There is a transference of affect constantly at play, the desire of one presses its shadow on the other’s unresolved past to a point where they become intertwined. The narrative successfully retains its enchanting aura because this intersubjective interaction abstains from crude dramatization and persists on a spiritual plane. As the lines of the film’s theme song ring: “how beautiful a sunny day is after a storm”, the journey of the Jinpas reaches a horizon where the lorry driver puts down his dark shades and the sternly composed hitchhiker starts crying on seeing his father’s murderer.