Jinpa (撞死了一只羊, Pema Tseden, 2018)

Jinpa poster 1Dreams, reality, and memory intertwine in Pema Tseden’s surrealist Tibetan western Jinpa (撞死了一只羊, Zhuàng le Yī ZYáng). Cycles of revenge and regret, killings accidental and deliberate, lost love, and inescapable karma bind two men or two parts of one whole as two travellers meet each other on the road, part, and then are perhaps reunited if in a more spiritual sense than literal. Moving away from the realism of Tharlo into mystical abstraction, Pema Tseden’s sixth feature is as obtuse as it is beguiling.

The titular Jinpa is an ultra cool truck driver in black leather and sunshades whose main jam is, incongruously enough, a Tibetan cover of O Sole Mio. Out on the road one day and distracted by the swooping flight a nearby bird, he accidentally hits and kills a sheep. Remorseful, Jinpa bundles the poor creature’s body into his cab, only to have to shift it into the back when he gets another passenger – a young wanderer (Genden Phuntsok) who later abandons his silence to explain that his name is also “Jinpa” and he’s on a quest for revenge against the man who killed his father 20 years ago. A decade long search has led him to Sanak where he hopes to find the man he’s looking for.

The men part company at the next turning, but the older Jinpa can’t seem to forget about his strange encounter. He takes the sheep for a proper funeral (before stocking up on lamb from a street stall), and pays a visit to lover where he unable to perform to anyone’s satisfaction. Jinpa hits the road again to look for his hitcher, either eager to prevent a crime which may add to his own karma, or simply to discover the end to the mystery.

Jinpa’s accidental slaughter of a sheep and the younger man’s quite deliberate quest for blood become somehow linked. Tracking the other Jinpa he finds himself at a tavern with a flirtatious barmaid (Sonam Wangmo) who gives him a few more clues, most particularly a possible identification of the man the other Jinpa might have been looking for but her tale is a strange one. The tavern goers’ background conversation is identical to the present moment, implying this is either one very boring spotlight hogger or that events are somehow occupying the same temporal space.

Shifting into hazy black and white for his flashbacks, Pema Tseden hints at the malleability of memory – as if one figure could easy be swapped out for another, past and present uncomfortably overlapping with memory as the unstable glue at their centre. The younger Jinpa’s prospective target, we discover, also has a son. Would he grow up to seek revenge against the man who killed his father? One circle closes, but another envelopes it just as quickly. A man kills a sheep, by accident, but perhaps there’s more that he’s atoning for than simply inattentive driving.

“If I involve you, it becomes your dream too” the opening text tells us citing a Tibetan proverb. Could the older Jinpa simply be dreaming a version of himself, or are the two men somehow inhabiting the same dreamscape? Events repeat, the two men walk the same path at different times, diverging and reuniting as they make their way towards whichever realisation is lying in wait for them.

Played by real life poet and actor himself called “Jinpa”, the eponymous hero oozes cool in his edgy rockstar getup and ever present sunshades, embodying the stranger in town a little too consciously as he wanders in search of his younger self. Produced by Wong Kar-wai and adapting Tsering Norbu’s novel The Slayer, as well as the director’s I Ran Over a Sheep, Jinpa is an unabashed exercise in style and mood, swapping the washed out iciness of the road for the colourful warmth of taverns, stores, and temples while memory remains a blur of radiating black and white frustratingly difficult to see in its entirety. Jinpa’s circular travels mimic his life, caught between cycles of violence and regret but hoping for forgiveness and eventual release. Abstract and inscrutable, Jinpa’s mythic fable nevertheless retains its strange power as its hero(es) attempt to free themselves from an inescapable spiral of existential despair.


Jinpa screens as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival on June 29.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

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