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Journey to the West

Posted by martinteller on March 23, 2014

Ming-liang Tsai’s follow-up to 2012’s Walker.  Again, we see Kang-sheng Lee in his monk regalia — red robes and shaved head — trudging slowly.  Very, very, very slowly.  Things are a little different this time, though.  For one thing, he doesn’t have the plastic bag and the sandwich.  And like the walker himself, the film seems less burdened, less constrained by its concept.  The movie (at 52 minutes, twice as long as its predecessor) starts with a 7-minute close-up of Denis Levant’s face.  Levant’s face is thoughtful, deep, craggy… later it is presented as part of a mountainous landscape that Lee is crossing.  Later still, Levant will “shadow” Lee, matching his slow march through the avenues of Marseilles, step by painstaking step.

It is rare for a film so slow and meditative to be so full of delights.  Tsai has taken the original concept and kicked it up a notch, taking it to new places both geographically and cinematically.  Shots vary in length.  One shows a man in his apartment, seemingly disconnected from anything we’ve seen before… until Lee appears in the background.  One scene feels like a “Where’s Waldo?” page, a busy square where one has to hunt for those red robes.  The film’s centerpiece is a 14-minute shot of Lee descending a subway staircase.  Unlike the indifferent Taiwanese of Walker, the French citizens take more notice.  Several of them start to descend Lee’s half of the stairway before noticing the glacial obstacle and shifting to the other side.  One little girl is transfixed by him.  Some people appear to try to strike up a conversation with him… or perhaps just about him.

Though some of these things are happy accidents (the reactions of passersby) and some are deliberate (the doubling with Levant), Tsai seems to be exploring a unique “East meets West” scenario.  Is Lee’s monk out of step with the world, or at least the urban parts?  Or is he simply experiencing it at a different pace?  Tsai wants us to slow down and observe.  He makes observation a sport, a game with audience participation.  Are these cultures so different?  Is the monk perhaps more at home in Marseilles than Taipei?  And what to make of the final shot, one of the most surprising shots of Tsai’s career?  It’s fascinating and beautiful and mesmerizing.

I was not particularly taken with Walker.  I found it an enjoyable lark but a bit empty.  This one won me over quite a bit more.  I suspect that in the long run, Stray Dogs will grow on me more and more and this will seem like more and more of a curiosity.  But this first experience with it left me breathless and a bit dazzled.  Maybe it’s not as substantial or emotionally resonant as his feature films, but I think there is an evolution of his style here… a film that feels simultaneously more precise and more free than some of his previous work.  Rating: Great (90)


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