Journey to the West
An impressive, meditative work by Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang
Tsai Ming-liang’s Journey to the West focuses on a monk (Lee Kang-sheng) who in a vivid red robe moves across, towards, or away from the frame with the smallest of movements. The film is stunningly shot in a series of long, static takes often surprisingly composed. The protagonist is like an animation figure, with each step containing the rigour of the animator’s craft but applied to one man’s pilgrimage through Marseille. Based on the story of a 7th century monk who devoted 17 years of his life to crossing Asia by foot, Lee’s protracted perambulations are contrasted with the hectic hassles of urban living around him.
Tsai frames his subjects beautifully, and if he rarely moves the camera in his work it is because of a compositional quietism that suggests movement, even a camera movement, is in danger of becoming part of the frenetic world the director seems to regard with suspicion. In Lee he casts the actor as a presence within the frame as much as someone performing a role within a story, and he is contrasted with another actor (Leos Carax regular Denis Lavant) who nevertheless in one lovely scene tries to match the monk’s pace. In an earlier sequence we watch as Lavant looks like a man struggling to find peace of mind, as if perhaps someone more inclined to give another person a piece of it. After all, Carax, like Claire Denis, often cast him for his reckless energy and his ability to burst into a run or bounce onto a dance floor (as seen in The Night is Young, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf and Beau Travail).
The film is among other things a hymn to these actors, but it can feel an awful lot like a prayer too. It is a work that appears to ask so little from its audience (not much more than patience and an alert eye), but gives a heck of a lot back.
Reviewed at Edinburgh International Film Festival 2014.