I finally got to watch Jinn on Netflix this weekend; the film was critically panned during its initial release and while I agree it had a lot of problems, it also showed a lot of potential. I'm going to break things down piece by piece, but before I do, here's the trailer for the film which, in my humble opinion, was one of the things done correctly.
Typically, whenever Hollywood does a film about the djinn, their story is told from a Judeo-Christian perspective. Jinn stands out because its told from the Judeo-Islamic perspective for a change, with a respectful homage to all Abrahamic religions. This allows viewers to get closer to the original mythos, replete with Arabic terminology, excerpts from the Torah, and the focus on holy water from Mecca instead of water from a cathedral. So right off the bat, we have a solid premise, which is the first of a few really good choices by the filmmaker.
The story focuses on a jinn-slayer-in-training, which is excellent. Problem is, instead of just giving us a slayer-in-training, and showing us his grueling exploits and inner turmoil, we're given prophecies about a "Chosen One", and we already know how that goes. Secondly, there wasn't too much plot for us to play with; with films like this we need more than just "the myth" to sustain us. Telling it to us more than once doesn't help. It's true that the origin story of the jinn is enough to hook us and reel us in, but after that we need a story with real meat to it, something to sink our teeth into. Jinn doesn't have meat. It has some nice flavors, but it's not filling, it's not satisfying. Critics complained about the writing and I have to give them that one; the writing left much to be desired.
We'll start with characterization.
Cast and Characterization
The main cast worked for me; some of their characterization did not. The cast is actually the main reason Jinn needs a sequel; the protagonist is Asian-American, after all.
|Dominic Rains as the jinn-slayer "Shan"|
But Rains's character of "Shan" has way too many problems. For one, instead of pronouncing his name "Shahn", most characters pronounce it "Sean" (and though the subtitles consistently show "Shan", IMDB shows "Shawn"). His surname is "Walker", because his parents died when he was young and he was adopted by a white family. His wife is also white. In fact, the film goes really far to whitewash this character, even making him talk in that nasally, whiny, Valley-boy type accent which renders Dominic Rains as seemingly inexperienced and overall unconvincing, which we know he's not.
Like I said, Shan's foster parents and wife are white, and their sole purpose...is to be white. His parents are introduced and shown for about eighty-two seconds for no reason other than confirm he was raised by white people. They offer nothing of value to the film whatsoever. His wife (named "Jasmine" and called "Jazz/Jazzy" of all things) is just that: his wife - she doesn't hunt, fight, kill, cast spells, or do anything other than cry, be clingy, and spend most of the movie missing. Shan's resolve to fight the jinn stems mainly from his need to rescue her (see what I meant about the lack of a plot?). Also note the very antiquated, juvenile characterization, the immature teenaged "mantasy" of being the hero who saves the helpless white damsel.
Look...we rarely get Asian-American leads in American films. We rarely get them because American film is saturated with whiteness. When I watched Jinn, there were times when I thought "Shan" might as well have just been cast and written to be "Sean" - yet another privileged white boy who finds out he's some special Chosen Something or Other, and then gets to go on some great adventure.
My point is, if you're going to give us an Asian-American lead, then give us an Asian-American lead. Give us a character who draws strength from his identity, and has pride in his ancestry - don't shy away from them and show us how "white" he can be. Don't kill off his parents and then replace them with white ones. Don't make a white-skinned woman the de facto love interest; think outside that box. Your hero is of Western Asian descent. Your movie's premise is Islamic demonology. Would it really kill you to show a no-nonsense East African or Southeast Asian sistah having Shan's back? No one thought to put in a call to, say, Hayat Ahmed Mohammed or Azie Tesfai or Rochelle Pangilinan?
Who do you think are going to be the biggest fans of films like these???? Who's most likely to campaign, defend, write fanfiction, and even donate for a sequel? Seriously...point me towards the Indiegogo link and I'll be there. And I'll bring an army with me!
|Faran Tahir as the jinn-slayer "Ali"|
There's not much to critique here; Tahir is veteran actor from a family of veteran actors, writers, and directors; he has a career going all the way back to 1989. An actor of his caliber is much needed on independent projects like these. He brings that gravity, that bad-assery, that grown-man's-bass-in-his-voice to the film, which is another reason we need a sequel. I feel like we don't get to enjoy him enough in this installment, and we need to see Ali and Shan grow, bond, and evolve as hunters.
|Ray Park as "Gabriel"|
Talk about a veteran; this Brit is an actor, stuntman, and martial artist, and I've admired his work for years (he actually started out in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation). Where Tahir brought grit and conviction to the film, Park brought a certain quiet grace we would expect from a supernatural being who's not forthcoming about his identity (at least not right away). And like with Tahir, I don't have much criticism for him; he did his work well, like always.
I've always suspected there was a high-class actor buried in there somewhere; ironically Jinn is one of the projects where we get a glimpse of him.
|The Firebreather Camaro|
The Writer and Director
Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad is the writer, director, and has a cameo as Shan's father via visions and VHS. Let me begin by I saying that I love Ahmad as a director. He's bold, he's ambitious, and he has a lot of great ideas. I hope Jinn leads to more opportunities because he's got some serious vision. To me, Jinn looked polished despite its budget; the special effects worked just fine for me, along with the way it was shot and cut. The credits were the bomb, and Ahmad's directorial skills got me excited for the first time in a long time. Given a proper budget and screenplay, this man could go on do some really great things.
I would not, however, recommend that he pen the sequel or anything else; Ahmad is a visual artist, not a literary one. Characterization and dialogue are not his strongest suits. With characterization he comes off as conflicted; this is how we end up exploring the jinn from an Islamic perspective with a brown man leading the cast...while buried in a sea of pointless, blinding whiteness.
With dialogue, Ahmad struggles with emptiness. The lines were weak and even downright cringe-worthy at times. I also didn't like it when the jinn switched to English; I stopped taking them seriously once they did.
There's really no reason for Ahmad to press the writing issue; YouTube and the blogosphere have presented us with a lot of talented independent writers who could easily pen a film about the jinn with much more substance and humor. It wouldn't be that hard to reach out to one of them, and they'd be very understanding of the budgetary constraints. Some would just be happy to see their names in the credits.
Had this been 10-15 years ago, I'd be forgiving because I understand the whole money issue. But again...sites like YouTube boast countless skilled indie composers and musicians who could have done wonders for this film's soundtrack. A lot of them don't even ask for money, just credit for their work.
Don't get me wrong; some parts of the score were okay, but I think overall it should have evoked its Western and Central Asian roots with an indigenous orchestral blend. Algerian actor Ben Youcef could've easily loaned his clarion vocals and given the cameo as Shan's father in his youth. Dude's based in L.A. after all, just one phone call away.
I also think the Shan-centric scenes could have benefited from an edgy, grungy rock theme, especially during his Chillah. It would've been a great way to give musical voice to his torment and it would've made the jinn a little creepier.
I still want a sequel; I'd happily donate to help make it happen. I think it would give Ahmad a chance at redemption, to fix everything that went wrong the first time, and to branch out and embrace some new indie talent. I'd be happy with a reboot where everything was retconned, or if the new story skipped ahead to when Shan's son grows up and learns it's his turn to fight the jinn. I think Avan Jogia would be great in that role. I mean, better a jinn-slayer than an ancient African King.
*braces for ethnic fuckery*