The pulpy thriller never lets its characters—or the audience—catch their breath.

The second annual 20th anniversary New York Asian Film Festival takes place from July 15 to July 31. For more informations on lineup and screenings, click here

It’s a bit of a surprise to find that Jigme Trinley’s elemental, exquisitely paranoid thriller One and Four is based on a novel: It seems a thing tailor-made for the screen, a visceral, stripped down experience that is at once a tense tale well told and, in the spaces and silences between, one that possibly speaks to a larger, more existential underpinning.

The story is fairly simple: The troubled Sanggye (Jinpa), an isolated forest ranger stationed in a remote cabin, encounters a wounded man claiming to be a cop (Wang Zhen, billed only as “The Tall Guy”). With a blizzard mere hours away, this supposed officer is sure that the poacher is going to show up on Sanggye’s doorstep for refuge, and forcibly enlists Sanggye’s aid in bringing the man to justice.

Both trust and food are low, and whatever minimal amount of cooperation the duo manages to achieve is almost immediately put into question by the arrival of a third party—who may or may not have a connection to the poacher, but definitely has a connection to Sanggye. This is mononym actor Kunde in the role of Kunbo, quietly hilarious as a floppy-haired local who enters as the bearer of bad news and quickly winds up being even more confused and terrified than Sanggye himself.

All the movie really requires to work the audience into a near constant state of confusion and ever simmering tension are these bare elements of a story. At no point is it clear that the Tall Guy is who he says he is, and at no point does whatever sense of safety or surety Sanggye feels seem like it’s going to last any longer than the next breath he takes (which is almost always plainly visible—few movies have done such a good job of conveying just how cold the dead of winter can actually be).

And it goes one step further than that, in the sense that we as audience members can’t necessarily trust Sanggye, either. While he’s the character we start out with and the film conveys genuine confusion and bewilderment at his situation, the lack of trust goes both ways: It’s not so clear that the Tall Guy can believe what Sanggye says any more than Sanggye can believe him.

The tricky role of Sanggye, which requires the actor to be almost entirely reactive and find roughly a thousand different ways of conveying fear and bafflement, is another feather in the cap of Jinpa, who has made previous NYAFF appearances in Pema Tseden’s metaphysical revenge thriller Jinpa (where he played a character named Jinpa alongside another actor playing a totally different character named Jinpa) and Soul On A String. His choice of roles marks him out to be a performer of idiosyncratic tastes and uncanny skill at grounding genre in something simultaneously spiritual and deeply human.

As the other side of the coin, Wang gives an equally good performance as a man running on sheer determination. Alternately feral and opaque, he’s someone you never fully trust, even though a big part of you wants to.

Both are helped out immensely by Trinley, who makes a frankly remarkable directorial debut here. Every creative choice is pitched towards making things experiential for the audience to get us as close as possible to the physical and psychological stresses of the characters. This is no more apparent than in the extended chase and shootout between the Tall Guy and his unseen quarry, which quickly devolves into a desperate, exhausting scramble for survival. A sequence both hallucinatory and brutal in its immediacy, it somehow evokes the feeling of being trapped in a nightmare recounted by an unreliable narrator. One and Four is far from an action movie, but if Trinley wanted to go in that direction, he’s more than proven that he has the chops.

In the space of its fleeting hour and a half runtime, One and Four uses every last moment to make its case as a solid, pulpy thriller that hints tantalizingly at concerns beyond the realms of mere human nature. If you come just looking for a highly effective thriller, you’ll absolutely get that. But it’s not a movie that’s willing to lay all its cards on the table or divulge its deepest secrets, and it’s all the better for it.

The 20th anniversary edition of the New York Asian Film Festival runs from July 15th to July 31st.

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