HKMDB Daily News

February 11, 2014

Journey to the West (Screen Daily review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 7:22 pm

Journey To The West
10 February, 2014
By Jonathan Romney

Dir: Tsai Ming-Liang. France-Taiwan 2014. 56mins

The question “How slow can you go?” is answered with sublime poise (quite literally) by actor Lee Kang-Sheng in Tsai Ming-Liang’s extraordinary Journey To The West (Xi You) - a film that may well be the last word in (and overtly on the subject of) ‘Slow Cinema’. A follow-up to the Taiwanese director’s 2012 short Walker – which originally formed part of the portmanteau film Beautiful 2012 - Journey takes the same premise, a Buddhist monk walking at something slower than tortoise pace, relocates it in Marseille and introduces the always fascinating wild card of Denis Lavant.

The words ‘hypnotic’ and ‘mesmerising’ are over-used with regard to such abstract cinema, but the words genuinely apply in this remarkable venture which is more like a performance or installation art project than an ‘art film’ in the regular sense. Journey is most likely to flourish in very specialised niches, both at festivals and on the art fair circuit, where it should enjoy a prestigious ‘event’ status, especially when screened - as it was in the Berlinale Panorama - on a gigantic IMAX screen, the projection format truly adding a special dimension.

Consisting of only 14 shots of varying lengths - from very brief to a centrepiece of approximately 20 minutes - the film shows two men, narratively unconnected, who finally come together in an extraordinary (and very amusing) sequence that shows off both actors’ physical skills and sense of timing. The film begins with a lengthy close-up in darkness of a largely unblinking Lavant, his weatherbeaten features (down which a single tear eventually rolls) filling the screen like a craggy lunar landscape.

Further shots of Lavant’s face by day are interspersed with the progress of a red-robed monk (Tsai regular Lee Kang-Sheng) as he undertakes a spiritual and physical exercise of walking in extreme slow motion across Marseille, beginning in one of the crumbling, deserted buildings that are a favourite Tsai locale. In some shots, the monk is briefly glimpsed in the crowd, in others he’s at the centre of the image, filling the screen, and sometimes (in shots that confirm Tsai’s status as a deadpan humorist and actor Lee as his Zen Buster Keaton), the monk materialises improbably - passing outside a window or glimpsed in the distance in a mirror.

This very sculptural film makes dazzling use of the mirrored canopy of Marseilles’ Port Vieux Pavillion - in one magically framed shot, making a stretch of waterfront resemble an ‘infinity pool’, and in a teasing sign-off, leaving the viewer searching for the monk in an upside-down crowd, Where’s Wally? style (a touch of delicate jazz piano sneaks in bewitchingly at this point).

Marseilles itself is another star of the film, its population reacting with the players in two shots in particular. One, the film’s centrepiece, has the monk - a silhouette backlit by a shaft of daylight - descending a staircase while passersby ignore, observe or puzzle over him. In the other, he moves past a busy corner bar, while this time Lavant follows him at a distance, also slowly and in pretty much perfect synch.

The film is a tribute to the astonishing physical and mental discipline of Lee Kang-Sheng, one of the great Everyman figures in modern cinema, and to the elegance and mastery of a director whose films represent a subtle, constantly surprising and often moving brand of minimalism that’s entirely his own. Journey To The West shows that style at its simplest and most rarefied, but also, in a gloriously counter-intuitive way, its most directly pleasurable.

Production companies: House on Fire, Neon Productions, Résurgences, Homegrown Films

International sales: Urban Distribution, www.urbandistribution.com

Producers: Vincent Wang, Fred Ballaïche

Screenplay: Tsai Ming-Liang

Cinematography: Antoine Héberlé

Editor: Lei Shen Qing

Music: Sébastien Mauro

Main cast: Lee Kang-Sheng, Denis Lavant
ScreenDaily

Blind Massage (Screen Daily review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 4:33 pm

Blind Massage
10 February, 2014
By Fionnuala Halligan

Tui Na, the Chinese title of Blind Massage, is a form of therapy often practiced in China’s medical massage centres for the blind. There are over 50,000 licensed blind masseuses in China, and Bi Feiyu’s best-selling novel, which Ma Yingli has adapted for the big screen, focuses on the lives and loves of the practicioners in one such Nanjing centre. It’s not hard to figure out why Lou Ye (Mystery, Shouzou River) was technically attracted to this project, and he throws every angle of light and darkness at its visual ebb and flow, from jarring moments of high melodrama to the more gentle, blurred edges of love.

With the book well-known in China, coupled with some bravura performances from blind and sighted actors alike, Blind Massage stands to perform well in the domestic marketplace. International reaction may be more divided, however, with some seeking a more coherent piece. While on the one hand, Lou abandons restraint to visually stretch the envelope in an exciting if occasionally confusing way, Blind Massage also has a tendency to trip over into high melodrama. With so many of the ensemble cast given a bloody resolution, Lou’s screenplay can often be careless with his hard-earned credibility.

Lou Ye has enjoyed a chequered history with censorship at home even as he has found consistent support amongst international festivals and financiers. Blind Massage, following on from 2012’s Mystery, is an officially-approved production, however, world premiering in Berlin’s Competition and co-produced by the Shaanxi Culture Industry with Lou’s own Dream Factory. With its cast of characters making their hesitant way through the Nanjing rain, it calls to mind the downpours of Mystery, which seems like an obvious commercial parallel.

Blind Massage fields an ensemble cast of blind masseurs, some played by the sighted, most notably Lou Ye’s regular collaborators Guo Xiaodong and Qin Hao. Spring Fever’s Xuang Xuan and Huang Lu play the angry young blind boy Xiao Ma, who kicks off the film with a botched suicide attempt, and his prostitute lover Mann. Mei Ting is Du Hong, the centre’s beautiful masseuse. They share scenes with blind actors including Zhang Lei as Kong, who has a natural ease.

Guo, whose relationship with the director stretches back to Summer Palace, and Qin, who appeared in Spring Fever, play old college friends who are reunited in the bustling, professional centre run by Dr Sha (Qin). Dr Wang (Guo) has arrived in Nanjing with his partially-sighted fiancé Kong, but their relationship is troubled – her parents will never accept a fully-blind man as her husband, while his brother and parents are in trouble with loan sharks.

Dr Sha, a hopeless romantic and poet in a fruitless search for love, falls hopelessly for Du Hong, who is attracted to Xiao Ma in this slightly soapy scenario. All stories will come to a violent resolution, though, as You’s camera drifts in and out of focus, zooming between light and dark, greys and reds. “The blind are in the light, while the sighted hide in the shadows,” concludes the screenplay, and it is indeed a poignant observation. You Le’s camera illuminates and shades their existence in all its heightened emotions.

Production companies: Shaanxi Culture Industry, Dream Factory

International sales:Wild Bunch, www.wildbunch.biz

Producers: Wang Yong, Nai An, Li Ling

Executive producers: Lou Ye, Nai An, Kristina Larsen

Screenplay: Ma Yingli, from the novel by Bi Feiyu

Cinematography: Zeng Jian

Editors: Kong Jinlei, Zhu Lin

Production designer: Du Ailin

Music: Johann Johannson

Main cast: Guo Xiaodong, Qin Hao, Zhang Lei, Mei Ting, Huang Xuan, Huang Lu, Jiang Dan
Screen Daily

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