NYAFF 2019: Men Dream and Women Kick Ass in JINPA and FURIE

The New York Asian Film Festival took place from June 28 to July 14. For more information click here.


I would be lying if I said I fully understood what it is exactly that Jinpa was trying to say, though I am fairly certain it is saying something.

It starts with an unattributed quote, the significance of which will become, if not fully clear, then slightly less opaque, as the film unfolds:

“If I tell you my dream, you might forget it

If I act on my dream, maybe you will remember it

But if I involve you, it becomes your dream, too”

Which serves to give a relatively accurate indication of the level of ambiguous reality viewers will be lured into here. This Tibetan tone poem written and directed by Pema Tseden is far less interested in telling a story than in evoking something spiritual in the viewer. The situation presented is very much in the mode of the setup for a revenge thriller. But it all plays out at a remove, feeling more like a friend telling you about a dream a stranger told him on a bus once. Which is an interesting sensation for a film to manage, but is probably an acquired taste.

Jinpa also does something interesting in its very construction; it is an adaptation of two short stories by different authors: ‘The Slayer’, by Tsering Norbu; and the descriptively titled ‘I Ran Over a Sheep’. Being unfamiliar with the stories, one can’t vouch for fidelity of adaptation, but the presumable parallels eventually prove to be rather obvious.

Granted, ‘I Ran Over A Sheep’ happens to have been written by Tseden himself, which feels like a bit of a cheat thematically speaking… but overall, points for adaptive ingenuity.

The dream unfolds in Kekexili mountain region, which at 4800 meters above sea level is one of the largest and highest plateaus in the world.

(Big shout out to Wikipedia!)

The time is unknown, and also mostly irrelevant. Our protagonist, Jinpa (billed in the end credits as Driver and whose real name appears to be… Jinpa) is a thoroughly unpleasant lorry driver who picks up a hitchhiker whose name also happens to be Jinpa, but is billed as Killer and portrayed by Genden Phuntsok. As befits his name, Killer is a man on a mission of murder, aiming to kill the man who murdered his father when he was just a boy. Their interaction is brief but haunts Driver to the point where he feels he has no choice but to get involved.

This is as much story as the film is willing to provide. But of course, the film has no interest in story. And to that end, much is left unsaid and much is left unanswered. Director of photography Lu Songye films the comings and goings of the film with an austere, dispassionate lens, imbuing events with a haunted, spectral edge. It’s a lot of long takes (rarely devoid of visual interest due to the efforts of art director Tenzin Nayima) that linger long enough for the mind to wander, which slowly gives way to contemplation. It’s a strategy that won’t work for everyone, but gives the film an unmistakable mood of mystery and divine unsurety.

All of the above probably makes it sound like some kind of term paper, but it’s not a film without a sense of humor and a certain playfulness. Driver’s awful rendition of ‘O Sole Mio’ becomes a fun (yet meaningful) running gag, and an extended scene where he gruffly flirts with a restaurant hostess while trying to track down Killer adds an unexpected and quietly frisky kick to the proceedings. But in the end, it all comes down to that dreamlike aura, and a question designed to have no answer.

Jinpa undeniably ranks fairly high on the art house scale of this year’s NYAFF selections, but there’s no doubt that the film is something more than a mere masturbatory exercise in pretension. It’s an enigmatic, questing movie, curious about both humanity and godliness and demands much of its potential audiences, in the hopes that they can carry the answers they find with them.

Whether it succeeds in its goals or not is something only the viewers themselves can decide.


Far be it from me to interject needlessly where our beloved Ed-itor In Chief, the Ed of the Famiglia, The Ed Cheese —

[I haven’t run any of these nicknames by him yet, but I’m sure he’ll grow to love them]

— has planted his flag. But while Ed’s rave review gives you pretty much everything you need to know about the entertainment virtues of Furie, it wound up being one of my favorite films of the festival, and I would be remiss if I didn’t show a little appreciation of my own.

In an age of convoluted franchise continuities and cinematic bloat, the stripped down spareness of the plot (daughter is kidnapped; mother goes to war) is downright refreshing. The movie is sleek and efficient in its storytelling, introducing Hai Phuong (Veronica Ngo) and her daughter Mai (Cat Vy), showing the bare minimum of their lives in the backwater country necessary to understand and sympathize with their situation, and then gets to the business of kicking-ass-and-not-taking-names because-there’s-no-time-what-with-all-the-ass-kicking-and-such…

The film more than delivers on the action front and manages to maintain its tension throughout the entire running time of the film (a viciously taut 97 minutes). And as sad as it may seem in this day and age, the mere act of effectively shooting well-choreographed action is such a relatively rare experience (in theaters, at least) that it almost bears recommendation just on those terms.

Which is to say, if it were merely an uncommonly effective action/thriller, that would be plenty. But Furie has much more going for it than that: this is the first truly female driven action movie.

Which sounds like a bold claim, and if someone comes up with another, I’m open to hearing about it. Of course there have been plenty of action movies with female leads. But this is the first action film in memory that is impossible to imagine without a female lead, if only because she’s allowed to express her journey with an emotional palette that is simply not available to male action heroes.

From the outset, Hai Phuong is introduced to us as a tough as nails woman, relentless in her duties as a debt collector and unsparing in her dealings with others and in her role as a mother. And this aura of her as the ultimate badass lasts exactly until the moment where Mai is kidnapped.

Now, we’ve all seen this before: the moment where the bad guys have crossed the line and pushed their target too far, necessitating a mission of justice, the bloodier the better. When the rage has no choice but to emerge. But that’s not what happens here.

What happens here, is that for the first time since we’ve met her, Hai Phuong is afraid.

And that fear informs her every action for the rest of the film; no matter how badass her moves are, however cool it is when she takes down an opponent, Ngo and the filmmakers never for a moment let us forget that every move she makes is one coming from a place of desperation, of sheer panic; she’s not sure what to do and not sure how to do it, but she has to keep going at all costs, even if she’s never really sure her actions will even matter at all. And that very kernel of doubt enhances the audience’s sense of danger… this isn’t a Liam Neeson movie; as tough as she is, she still might not save the day.

Even past that, there’s a special kind of skill in the way the movie forefronts how this kind of story differs when the genders get switched (and it has to be said, almost all the important primary characters in the film are female) without making it didactic. It’s in everything from the gossip she must endure as a single mother and the public questioning of her parenting skills to the remarkable scene where an old widow begs for the life of her ex-con son who may or may not be connected to the abduction. Even the Fast and Furious movies, intent as they are at invoking the word ‘family’ every five minutes, haven’t come close to approaching the level of impact of that relatively brief scene.

But for all my praise of its female forward filmmaking bonafides, the true brilliance of Furie is that none of this is so forefronted as to alienate the determinedly apolitical viewer. It works on a couple of levels in that sense, and if all you’re interested in is 90 minutes of high impact action… well, you won’t leave disappointed.

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