Journey to the West – Tsai Ming-liang (2013)

A lucky accident brought me to an online screener of Tsai Ming-liang’s new and highly acclaimed film Journey to the West. It had its premiere at this year’s Berlinale earlier this year, and even though I tend to avoid reviews in general, especially before I have seen a film, I couldn’t help it with this film. I was too keen on finding out what Tsai did this time.

Journey to the West is (very) loosely based on a Chinese classic of the same name. I’m currently reading it in connection to Tsai’s film. When I read the description on Amazon it sounded like a slow book; a monk travels to the West to fetch scriptures from the Buddha in 200 chapters and 2000 pages. What more do I need to make me happy? It’s a great book, by the way. Entertaining and philosophical at the same time.

Anyway, back to the film, which is, with 53 minutes, longer than Tsai’s first part of his walking series, Walker, which you can also watch online on Vimeo. The first thing I noticed was that Tsai opened up the surroundings, the environment. In Walker, the monk (superbly played by Lee Kang-Sheng) walks slowly (although slow needs a new definition here) through the streets of Hong Kong. In some ways, it’s a simple demonstration of slow and fast, of tradition and modernity, of meditative walking and hasty running.

Journey to the West is set in Marseille, France. It is a kind of “Where’s Wally?” film. In contrast to Walker, the monk in Journey is not always instantly recognisable or visible. There are scenes that require quite a bit of patience and commitment to detect the slow walking monk in his red robe. In short, the monk is not necessarily the main character. The film is a study of an ensemble of people, which wasn’t the case in Walker. In the trailer of the film, you can see the monk walking down stairs, presumably down to a subway station. This take lasts longer than ten minutes. Because of the unique combination of an extended long take and the slow walking of the monk, you get the opportunity to study the people around him; how they react to him, how they haste past him, how they look in amusement, or you can hear what they say about him. One guy, for instance, wondered whether this was a porn film shoot. Speaking of intelligence…

For me, Journey is close to visual perfection. If it hasn’t reached the stage of perfection already. It’s superb and a real joy to watch. It’s Tsai’s most photographic film yet. The beautiful cinematography and the slow walking monk reminded me of Slow Art. The scenes are like photographs, or paintings, which you study closely. You just let them unfold in front of you. It is not about your imposing a meaning. It is about letting the artwork talk to you. This is what Journey was about for me. There is a clear intention of establishing a dialogue between film and viewer in ways that differ so greatly from other films, even from Tsai’s previous films. It is a unique kind of filmmaking, which is difficult to describe to people who haven’t seen it.

Therefore, I shall finish my musings and direct you to the online screener. It is available for only a week, apparently until 27 March, via Arte France. Do watch it if you have the chance. It’s a film experience you won’t forget.

P.S.: I figured last night that the streaming works best with Mozilla Firefox.

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