Film Review: Journey to the West by Tsai Ming-liang

By Christopher Bourne

At last year’s Venice Film Festival, where Taiwanese master auteur Tsai Ming-liang’s most recent feature “Stray Dogs” premiered, Tsai announced that it would be his last. And indeed, “Stray Dogs,” which contained references to just about every other film in his oeuvre and featured most of his regular actors, did have the feel of a final statement. However, this was before Tsai won the Grand Jury Prize at Venice, so it remains to be seen whether this will encourage him to continue, and prove his “retirement” to be as lasting as Steven Soderbergh or Jay-Z’s.

The most hopeful sign that this will be the case is the fact that just a few months after Venice, at the Berlin Film Festival, Tsai debuted another major work, “Journey to the West,” a sublime, contemplative creation that is one of his finest. Of course, this is not to be confused with Stephen Chow’s recent big-budgeted blockbuster hit of the same name. Other than the fact that the two films share a title and are based in their own ways on the same classic Chinese narrative, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with two works more dissimilar, or that seem more to exist in separate universes.

Tsai’s “Journey to the West,” which recently screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, evades any sort of easy classification. At just a few minutes shy of an hour, it doesn’t quite qualify as a feature. It also exists far outside the realm of narrative cinema, and is more akin to an art installation. In fact, “Journey to the West” screened in two ways at Tribeca: as a normal theatrical projection, and also as an installation inside a dome at PS1.

This is the sixth in Tsai Ming-liang’s series of short films starring his regular lead actor perennial muse Lee Kang-sheng as a slow-walking monk making his travels in various urban centers around the globe. This ongoing project was inspired by a performance Lee gave in a stage play Tsai wrote and directed called “Only You,” in which Lee walked very slowly on the stage. As Tsai writes in his statement included in the “Journey to the West” press notes: “His performance was so perfect that I decided to film it. His walking, so special and so slow, recalls that of Xuanzang, the holy monk of the Tang Dynasty, who traveled thousands of kilometers seeking the holy scriptures.”

The series began with Tsai’s 2012 short “Walker” (which you can watch here: http://vimeo.com/49339358), shot in Hong Kong, which established the template: Lee Kang-sheng, dressed in red monk’s robes, barefoot, head down and arms out in a supplicating gesture, walks very, very slowly, his infinitesimal progress across the frame existing in sharp contrast to the bustle of the city and the people around him. Lee represents a meditative oasis in the midst of the rapid activity that surrounds him, and the films are the apotheosis of Tsai’s inimitable style of wordless contemplation, his riposte to the fast-cutting and over-plotted, narrative noise of most other films.

“Journey to the West” moves the (non)action to Marseille, France, and this time Lee’s monk gains a disciple of sorts, in the person of inimitable French actor Denis Lavant, best known for his collaborations with iconoclastic French auteur Leos Carax (“Lovers on the Bridge”, “Holy Motors”). The film consists of 14 shots, most of them relatively brief, save for two lengthy centerpiece scenes. It begins with a very long shot, a nearly ten-minute close-up of Denis Lavant’s face as he is reclining. With the only sounds on the soundtrack Lavant’s labored breathing, we are invited to contemplate every wrinkle and crevasse on Lavant’s uniquely craggy visage. In this and every subsequent shot, Tsai challenges us to view images in a very different way than we are used to, the regard the act of seeing as a sort of contemplative meditation, the slowness and austerity of the shot forcing us to engage actively with the image, rather than be a passive consumer, as in most other films. In this goal, Tsai succeeds immensely, with exquisitely composed artistry and rather unexpected humor.

The film’s two longest shots perfectly illustrate this. The film’s longest shot is a nearly 20-minute shot of Lee slowly descending a staircase down into a subway, the camera imperceptibly moving to capture his deliberative descent. The delicate movement, colors, and composition of the frame is mesmerizing and simply stunning. Sunlight shines in a halo surrounding the monk, as dust motes fly in the air. The reactions of the people who go past him are also fascinating to watch. The monk mostly has the side of the staircase he is descending to himself, as most of the other commuters going into the subway regard him as an obstruction to get around, and a brief object of curiosity. The only person who regards him closely is a little girl who lingers at the top of the stairs, staring at him curiously as she seemingly waits for a relative to pick her up.

The other long scene features Levant; before this, Lee and Levant are kept apart, existing in separate shots or in scenes where Levant is close to the camera while Lee is a figure in the distance. However, in a long scene in front of an outdoor café, Lee does his slow walk in front of a group of curious and amused onlookers and passerby. As Lee walks, Lavant suddenly appears behind him, walking slowly as well, mirroring Lee’s slow movement almost perfectly, his mimicry a supreme expression of inspired devotion.

“Journey to the West” ends with its most surprising and striking shot, an upside-down view of a scene, where the mirrored surface of a canopy occupies three quarters of the frame. We scan the scene for the iconic red-robed monk, but we don’t find him. After awhile, the familiar presence appears, entering the upper right of the frame. And with that the film ends, with this postscript from Tsai, quoting the Diamond Sutra: “All composed things are like a dream,/A phantom, a drop of dew, or a flash of lightning,/That is how to meditate on them,/That is how to observe them.” This perfectly expresses the philosophy behind, and the beauty of, the sublime cinema art Tsai Ming-liang has been creating for over two decades. Hopefully, this isn’t the last we’ve heard from this endlessly brilliant artist of cinema.

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