Journey to the West
2/9/2014 by Deborah Young
The Bottom Line
A piece of curious performance art as beautifully photographed as it is sleep-inducing.
Taiwanese cult director Tsai Ming-liang takes his snail-paced monk to Marseilles.
One has to ask if the English title of cryptic Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang’s Journey to the West is a sly reference to Stephen Chow’s demon-hunting hit of last year, with which it has nothing but the title in common. Instead Tsai returns to his Buddhist monk who walks through the city at a snail’s pace to the general indifference of the populace and, of course, most of the film-going public. Yet there will be followers of this short but patience-trying film, and its message to get off the grindstone of unhappiness and find inner peace will fly at selected festivals after its Berlin premiere. It’s hard to imagine other audiences.
This is the third installment of the series, after the Asian-set Walking on Water (part of the film Letters from the South) and the original Walker (part of Beautiful 2012) with Lee Kang-sheng returning to the role of the stooped, red-robed monk who treads through streets and squares and up and down staircases in exaggerated slo-mo with his fingers in a blissful mudra. All around him Antoine Herberle’s hidden camera captures the bustling life of the city, which in the present case means Marseilles, as busy people ignore him or politely look the other way.
One man, however (played by Denis Lavant), decides to imitate his penitential steps and follows him like a disciple. We have previously seen the man’s suffering face in extreme close-up and profile, in fixed long-held shots emphasizing his unhappy heavy breathing. Now he seems to have found a purpose in life.
The setups are often startling, even witty, like the monk passing by a store dummy or entering an empty screen where red paint literally seems to be drying. Tourists furtively snap his picture and the bemused idlers in an outdoor café watch him until they lose interest. The final shot turns the city upside down in a huge mirror.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Special), Feb. 9, 2014.
Production companies: House on Fire, Neon Productions, Resurgences, Homegreen Films
Cast: Lee Kang-sheng, Denis Lavant
Director: Tsai Ming-liang
Screenwriter: Tsai Ming-liang
Producers: Vincent Wang, Fred Bellaiche
Director of photography: Antoine Herberle
Editor: Lei Shen Qing
Music: Sebastien Mauro
Sales Agent: Urban Distribution
No rating, 56 minutes.