The old adage "it's not the destination, it's the journey" is scrupulously followed to the hilt by acclaimed arthouse director Tsai Ming-liang in the series of short- and medium-length films he expanded from ill-received online short Walker, itself inspired by a monologue he staged in Taipei with his acting alter ego Lee Kang-sheng. In all of them, Mr. Lee moves in ultra-slow-motion along bustling city centres, creating a series of haunting and arresting images that follow exactly the director's self-admission that he is a creator of images more than a story-teller, and his desire to produce work that stands in sharp contrast to the speed of modern film and modern life.
The hour-long Journey to the West is the sixth in the Walker series and takes its title from a classic of Chinese literature about the travels of a Buddhist monk into "the Western regions". The setting for Mr. Lee's zen feat of walking is now the streets of Marseille, and Mr. Tsai gives him a peculiar doppelgänger in the always cinematic presence of French actor Denis Lavant, who becomes a sort of "apprentice" or disciple, their choreographed movements developing into a sort of poetic zen burlesque, halfway between Buster Keaton, Andy Warhol, performance art and Jacques Tati. This analogue slow motion is framed in a suggestive, exquisitely realised series of trompe l'oeil and group long takes (there are only 14 shots in the entire hour-long film, a tour de force by DP Christophe Heberlé) that pretty much require an entirely different approach to the act of viewing — as was indeed the director's concept all along.
It's worth asking if we're still in the realm of cinema as we knew it - the fact that the Walker series developed from a stage performance and is "travelling" through different places in films of varied length that deliberately shatter the classic story-telling format makes it closer to an artistic project, an art installation, maybe a mixed-media adventure - but either way, there's a glimpse of mischief and of playfulness in the film that you don't always find in Mr. Tsai's more structured features, suggesting his heart may now be in these less conventional works.
France, Taiwan 2013
Cast Lee Kang-sheng, Denis Lavant
Director and screenwriter Tsai Ming-liang; cinematographer Antoine Heberlé (colour); composer Sébastien Mauro; costumes Wang Chia Hui; editor Lei Zhen Qing; producers Vincent Wang and Fred Bellaïche; production companies House on Fire Productions, Neon Productions, Résurgences and Homegreen Film with the participation of ARTE France/La Lucarne
Screened February 9th 2014, Cinestar am Sony Center 3, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 Panorama press screening)