Journey to the West
Many accounts of Tsai Ming-liang’s work make it sound rigidly schematic and systematic: all static shots, all in long takes! Journey to the West – the second entry in the Walker series featuring Lee Kang-sheng as an ultra-slow-moving monk – shows up the fallacy of such reductive caricature (however well-intentioned it may be as a tribute to the director’s rigour).
Tsai and his cinematographers pan when they have to or want to (as, for instance, when they follow Lee down a long flight of stairs in Journey); and the duration of images can last anywhere from under a minute to 14 minutes (as in the already notorious penultimate shot of Stray Dogs), in no clear or predictable pattern of alternation. In fact, his style, within its pre-set parameters, is remarkably flexible.
Journey to the West also plays with the hint or shadow of a narrative – but without the same gravity as in Stray Dogs. Lee and Denis Lavant seem to begin (judging from the overlapping soundtrack) in the same cave or womb-like interior space. As Lee moves up the stairs and out into the world – like in the performance art that Alejando Jodorowsky performed in his Chilean youth, one must keep walking forward, no matter what! – Lavant appears (in the film’s fourth shot) to be dreaming the monk’s presence, far in the hilly background.
Eventually, Lavant pops up on the crowded streets of Marseille, following his Master and proving for us – as Chaplin and Keaton once did – that exact mimicry is among comedy’s greatest and most enduring mechanisms.
Journey is, in its own terms, a perfect Tsai work, a small gem. It mixes both a species of hyper-realism – precisely documenting, as in a Straub-Huillet film, the movement of light or the sound of the wind – and a sense of surrealist marvel, as in the shot of a Museum roof reflection flipped upside-down, thus suggesting that the sky begins, at ground level, where a body of water is abruptly bisected.
No matter what is happening in or to the image, however, everyday life keeps streaming by: people walk on, oblivious, or gawk for a moment at the performers or the camera. Tsai (after judicious editing) accepts all the fluctuations, all the accidents. It is his Zen wisdom at its most paradoxical height, as in his earlier video A Conversation with God (2001): some measure of serenity is found at the heart of a truly chaotic, messed-up, urban world.
Although Tsai has announced that Stray Dogs will be his last work for cinema, in order to concentrate more on gallery pieces and virtual reality experiments, perhaps the comparative success, on the specialist circuits, of it and Journey to the West (they have since been coupled on DVD) will convince him to keep moving on, into the unknown.
MORE Tsai: What Time Is It There?
© Adrian Martin April 2015