Pema Tseden was born in 1969. He started with short films before directing “The Silent Holy”, his debut feature-length film in 2005, the very first feature shot in Tibet with a Tibetan crew and Tibetan actors. His following 3 films got selected at international film festivals. As an author he both writes in Chinese and Tibetan. His books have been translated in several languages. Tharlo won the Golden Cyclo and the Inalco Grand Prize at Vesoul IFFAC’s 22nd edition in 2016.

On the occasion of “Jinpa” screening at the 25th Vesoul International Film Festival of Asian Cinemas, where it won the Golden Rickshaw,the Critic’s Choice Award and a Special Mention by the INALCO Jury, we speak with him about the film and “Tharlo”, Kekexili, the ambiguous ending, rituals and traditions in Tibet, revenge, and many other topics.

“Jinpa” seems to be more accessible than your previous film, “Tharlo”. Why did you choose this approach?

For me, “Jinpa” seems less accessible (laughs). Actually, the audiences in festivals like Vesoul, seem to think that “Tharlo” is more accessible. Because Jinpa focuses much on a dream, people are not sure of how to interpret it, and it is a difficult film to understand. “Tharlo” seems more popular, because it is easier to interpret.  

Why did you decide to shoot the film in the specific area (Hoh Xil or Kekexili) and how difficult was shooting there?

There are three main areas in Tibet and I chose the specific one because there is a tradition of revenge there. In fact, even Hitler talked about the people in the region; they are famous because they are eager to fight. In addition, this region is scarcely populated, very quiet, the living conditions are difficult, and I felt that the place suits the story of “Jinpa”.

Since the shooting took place at such a height (average of 5,000 meters in the area), only local people were used to this kind of conditions, while the crew, who were Chinese and Tibetan actually got sick due to the lack of oxygen. Some of them even had serious problems and had to be sent to the hospital. I am used to this environment so I was ok.

Can you give us some details about the short stories the film was based upon (“The Killer” by Tsering Norbu and “I Ran Over a Sheep” by Pema Tseden himself)?

I felt that “The Slayer” was very short and that is why I added my own story in the script. Actually, there are some common elements between the two stories, for example, the element of redemption, as Jinpa the driver seeks redemption for running over a sheep and Jinpa the killer by taking revenge. In addition, both stories contain many scenes on the road, so it was easy to combine them.

The film looks much like a Sergio Leone western. Was that your intention?

Yes, because usually westerns take place in the west of America not in the west of China (laughter) so I thought maybe we should use some elements of the western.

Jinpa the truck driver looks like a rock star. Why did you choose to portray him like that?

I wanted the driver to look strong while the killer weak and fragile, but that is just the way they look. Actually, I wanted to create a contradiction, since Jinpa the driver is actually the fragile one while the killer is strong due to his determination to take revenge.

Can you give us some details about how you selected the two protagonists for their roles?

I knew both of them before the shooting, since Jinpa the driver (whose actual name is also Jinpa) also played in “Tharlo” while Genden Phuntsok also acted in some movies. Regarding the driver, I wanted someone whose image seemed strong and regarding the killer, someone who seems fragile, with eyes that look tired. I wanted the characters to be as different as possible, even in the way they speak, because they do not have the same experiences in life, and that is why I chose the particular actors.

I thought the funniest scene in the film is the one with the bottles of Budweiser without labels. Why did you choose to have such a scene in the film?  

The film functions like a road movie and there are not many characters in it. Therefore, I tried to make some interesting points, to include some humor, like the dialogue between the driver and the killer, between the owner of the tea house and the driver, in order to highlight their characters better.   

Can you give us some details about the teahouse owner, who is very beautiful and quite flirty?

She runs a teahouse in the middle of the road so she meets a lot of different people, and that is why I chose to make her character beautiful and charming. She also has a crucial role in the narrative because she is the one who tells Jinpa the driver about Jinpa the killer, about the things the driver did not see, through her interaction with the latter. Thus, she provides another point of view to the character of the killer.

The ending of the film is vague, disorienting, and confusing. Why did you choose to present it like that?

The ending is a dream. You can see that the camera is at the same place where Jinpa the driver run over the sheep, with the story making a circle. During the dream, the camera moves towards a lake and the driver is dressed like the killer, so he becomes the killer to help the killer exact his revenge. In fact , for people in the region, it is considered a disgrace if one does not avenge his relatives, but the killer, when he finds the one who wants to exact revenge from, he realized he could not do it. At the same time, the man he wanted to kill knows he committed a crime and is chanting sutras to redeem himself but he is also waiting to be killed. So, when the young guy does not kill him, he does not become liberated and is Jinpa the driver who actually completes the cycle in the dream, liberating both. At the same time, this ending also continues a negative cycle, since then probably the son or a relative of the man Jinpa the driver kills will also search for the one who killed his relative. I think this kind of cycle should be interrupted, despite being part of the tradition and that is why I placed the whole thing in a dream. You can realize that it is a dream by the scene where Jinpa the driver is watching an eagle but when he wakes up from the dream he realizes it was an airplane.

For me, the two most impressive scenes in the film are the sex one, between Jinpa the driver and his girlfriend (particularly the way the camera focuses on their hands and the use of the mirror) and the funeral scene with the vultures during the end. Could you give us some details about how you shot those scenes?    

For me, the first scene you mention is materialistic, because he brings her meat and then they have sex, which means their relationship is not that deep. The scene takes place in a very small space and you can see that the two of them have not seen each other for some time and they want to hug each other and be intimate, and that is what I wanted to show by focusing on their hands.  The mirror also functions as a way to show this, since when the lights are off we do not see much, but when the lights are on we can see the meat in the mirror, in a kind of symbolism regarding their relationship. And you can see that the sex scene is quite brief because the appearance of the killer has taken a toll on the driver, to the point that he cannot perform. Furthermore, Jinpa always wears his sunglasses in the film but after the sex, he takes them off and the light turns on, with the scene symbolizing a kind of a liberation.

For the funeral scene, there are three ways of burying the dead, traditionally. The first one is just to bury them, the second to burn them and the third to leave them for the vultures to eat because the belief is that the birds will bring the spirit of the dead to the sky. The place we shot the scene is actually used in the area for the third kind of funeral. We had a monk chant some sutras and instead of an actual body, we burned some meat. The actors had to be patient for the vultures to arrive but eventually, hundreds of birds appeared and then the whole procedure just took one morning. For me, this scene has a triple meaning. In the beginning, you can see Jinpa the driver, after killing the sheep he asks from a monk to chant a sutra for the dead sheep, just like for a human being, because he felt guilty; in the dream, the driver becomes the killer and finishes the original killers revenge; and the other killer, the old man is killed in the dream. In that fashion, all three of the characters eventually receive redemption.

A lot of Chinese filmmakers have had issues recently with censorship. Did you experience something like this with “Jinpa”?

The authorities had some opinions about some scenes but eventually they approved the script and we had no problems shooting the film.

Are you working on a new project?

I just finished shooting another film, and I am in postproduction at the moment. It is a contemporary story about the birth of a child and is set in Tibet.