Pema Tseden’s gorgeous and enigmatic Tibetan road movie has the bleached understatement of Sergio Leone and the lush intimacy of (producer) Wong Kar Wai.
The Kekexili region is a remote, high and seemingly endless plateau of scree and clouds and vultures. Lorry driver Jinpa (played by Jinpa who was so great in Tseden’s Tharlo (2015)) traverses it in silence. He is shabby rock star cool, with sunglasses and leather and an ever-present sense of purpose. Two small events affect the usual well-worn track of his day; he hits and kills a sheep and he picks up a lone walker, a young man also called Jinpa (Genden Phuntsok). Both appear out of a barren nothingness and, with some lengthy hesitation, the older Jinpa brings them along on his journey.
The younger Jinpa is taciturn but reveals he is heading to a village to take revenge on the man who killed his father. After he drops him off at a junction, the older Jinpa continues on but can’t resist the pull to find out what has happened.
This is a gloriously shot and meditative film. Bleached colours evoke many a Western, contrasted with the Rembrandt-like chiaroscuro of the village tea house where both Jinpas eat and drink. The hostess (Sonam Wangmo), who serves them their food and tea and sometimes answers their questions is mesmerising and is equal parts seductive and commanding. On the plateau, the camera is unflinching and we feel we are seeing everything but in the enclosed spaces of the tea house, and in flashbacks of the older Jinpa’s life, I could feel the influence of Wong Kar Wai where what is hidden says as much as what is seen.
In the tea house, the linear narrative begins to fragment, with a younger man’s visit echoing that of Jinpa. We begin to doubt the reality of what we are seeing; it’s possible that both men are different aspects of the same person or the result of different choices made. There are themes of karma and redemption and revenge. The film ends with a proverb that doesn’t spell out a meaning but gives you a sense of the interconnectedness of lives and how we are affected by story and choice and imagination.
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