Tibet Noir: Filmmaker Pema Tseden Offers a Harsh Look at His Homeland

A tarnished truck slowly crawls along an isolated road on the Kekexili Plateau, rocking and bumping gently on the grit and loose pebbles, battered by an unfeeling sand storm that blocks the sun and erodes the roughest mountains. The skyline is grey and pale; not a single trace of life is found along the landscape that expands infinitely. Inside the truck is a lonesome, weary truck driver whose spirit is lifted only by his flask (which runs out), his roll-your-own cigarettes (lit by a malfunctioning lighter), a cassette tape of the Tibetan version of “O Sole Mio” (jammed quickly after playing) and getting off the truck to take care of his natural needs, before the absurd climax of the scene that breaks the long, almost unendurable mundaneness – running over a sheep.

Pema Tseden

The killer (left) and the driver (right) in the truck. Image courtesy Edko Film.

This is Tibet through the lens of Jinpa. Directed by Pema Tseden and co-produced by Wong Kar-wai and Jacky Pang, the feature reaped the Best Screenplay award in the Horizons section at the 75th Venice International Film Festival, and was nominated for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay at the 55th Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan. Jinpa is the multi-award winning director’s second film that premiered at the Venice Festival after Tharlo (2015). His had previously won awards at the 9th Shanghai International Film Festival (2006), 12th Tokyo Future International Film Festival (2011) and Brooklyn Film Festival (2012), among others.

The film follows a truck driver named Jinpa (played by actor and poet Jinpa) who, after running over the innocent animal, picks up a young Khampa (a native of the historical region of Tibet covering a land area largely divided between present-day Tibet Autonomous Region and Sichuan, played by Genden Phuntsok), who coincidentally shares the same name. Along the drive, Jinpa discovers that the young man is on his way to avenge his father, murdered when he was a child. The two go their separate ways, but truck driver Jinpa, desperate to redeem himself for having taken the innocent life of the sheep, decides to hunt down the would-be killer to prevent the murder.

Jinpa carrying the dead goat to a monk for guidance. Image courtesy Edko Film.

The opening frames of Jinpa highlight a Tibetan idiom that speaks to the tension between tradition and modernity: “It’s a disgrace in Tibet if revenge is not taken.” Pema Tseden observes that there are a lot of filmmakers who focus on Tibet’s positive sides, such as the glorious panoramas of lush green plains dotted with pearls of sheep in Dreaming Lhasa (2005) by Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin, the epic Dalai Lama in Kundun (1997) by Martin Scorsese, or the People’s Liberation Army’s emancipation of an exploited Tibetan serf in Nong Nu (1936) by Jun Li. But he says that Tibet can also be visually and culturally harsh. “[Some modern filmmakers producing films about Tibet] don’t particularly understand Tibetans,” he says. “In turn, the scripts which supposedly reflect Tibetan customs, lifestyles and cultures are erroneous. Jinpa is the mirror of my way of life [as a Tibetan].”

In the film, when the young Jinpa finally meets the silver-haired man who murdered his father, ready to stab him with his inherited dagger, he becomes teary – hardly the vengeful killer one would expect. He looks at the old man, then at his child, who is playing with a toy giraffe. The old man isn’t frightened; instead, he is also on the brink of crying, heavy with shame and guilt. There is an understanding between them. Years ago, the old man only took the life of young Jinpa’s father in his own act of vengeance, in order to uphold family honour and observe Tibetan tradition. 

Jinpa the driver listening to the tea house owner recounting her encounter with the killer. Image courtesy Edko Film.

The film has a cyclic structure, foregrounding the Buddhist concept of reincarnation, along with Pema Tseden’s rejection of blind adherence to tradition. A motif of sky burials draws a parallel between an early scene, when the driver decides to offer the corpse of the sheep he killed to vultures. There’s also a dream sequence, in which truck driver Jinpa stabs the old man before seeing his younger namesake roaming freely in glorious sunlight, amidst vultures feeding on a corpse and, curiously, a plane flying across the sky. The abrupt image of modernity symbolically breaks the cycle of revenge, which, Pema Tseden says “marks the end of a tradition as the new era approaches.”

Jinpa’s subject is heavy, and the long shots and slow pace make the 86-minute feature seem as long as the endless Kekexili highway. And yet the film is also infused with a certain dark humour. When Jinpa asks for advice from a monk—a supposedly omniscient and authoritative figure—on what to do with the dead sheep, he is shocked by the monk’s casual response. “I don’t know – I suppose you eat the dead sheep now that its spirit has fled its body under the chants,” he says. A famished beggar is standing nearby. “Why don’t you give the sheep to me instead?” he asks. “It’ll keep me full for more than a month.” The conversation flirts with absurdity, needling religious authority while casting a critical eye over the often sour reality of Tibetan life.

Jinpa in the village on the Tibetan plateau. Image courtesy Edko Film.

According to a 2015 report by the Borgen Project, Tibetans have long been among the poorest people in Asia, with 34 percent of the population living in poverty, including many who live on less than 620 RMB (HK$703) per year – far below China’s average household income of 21,600 RMB per year. 

Pema Tseden sees his work as a way to express the struggles of the Tibetan people. Born during the Cultural Revolution to a farmer and a nomad in Guide County, Qinghai, he is the only one of three siblings to have finished school. When he was a child, there were no cinemas or film studios in Tibet, and the lack of resources meant that filmmaking was a difficult career path to take. He worked as a primary school teacher and civil servant to make a living, and only explored filmmaking on his own time.

In 2005, he chanced upon a scholarship from the Trace Foundation and became the Beijing Film Academy’s first ever Tibetan student, directing his first film, The Silent Holy Stones, in 2005, which earned him the 13th Golden Rooster Award for Best Directorial Debut. Since then, Pema Tseden has directed nine films, including Jinpa, and authored the short story collection Enticement: Stories of Tibet – all addressing social or cultural issues such as ethnic minorities, Tibetan dialects and identity crisis amidst Han cultural hegemony in China.

Killer Jinpa. Image courtesy Edko Film.

“It’s hard for Tibetan films made in the native dialect to break into the Chinese film market dominated by Han audiences,” he notes. But Jinpa has been a success, earning 10 million RMB in its first 11 days of release, even though it was only shown on a few screens after its April premiere in Beijing. By contrast, Pema Tseden’s debut film, The Silent Holy Stones (2006), earned around 210,000 RMB; Tharlo which also premiered in the Horizons section of the Venice Film Festival  three years earlier earned 1.11 million. “It was a huge jump from the previous Tibetan film box offices,” he says. “I’m delighted to see the rising popularity of Tibetan films, which in turn will be a great way to shed light on Tibetan issues.”

Pema Tseden also considers Jinpa to be an artistic breakthrough. “For most of my previous films, the scripts were created from scratch,” he says. Jinpa was adapted from Tsering Norbu’s The Slayer, as well as Pema Tseden’s own novel, I Ran Over a Sheep. It was an experiment in merging together two stories about redemption and making a nonconforming choice in order to be right – a universal human experience that audiences around the world may find relatable, even if the film was made in Pema Tseden’s native Amdo dialect of Tibetan.

“It’s a Tibetan story set in Tibet which is real to my people,” he says. “The burials, the characters, their feelings and expressions – all these are the reification of our people and reality.” He notes that audience members from different cultural backgrounds may interpret Jinpa in different ways. “But,” he says with a smile, “this is what art is supposed to be.”

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