To make a film that (running at 56 minutes) edges into feature-length but has no narrative, no resolution, no dialogue, no action, and no music is perhaps the clearest and sharpest articulation yet of what has long been evident with Tsai Ming Liang: he wants the viewer to watch the image, not follow the story. There is no mainstream appeal in Journey to the West and it transgresses almost every convention of commercial cinema. As brief as the film was, a couple sitting near me left before the end; I’m not sure if they found the near-silence and inching slowness simply too boring, or too excruciating. The apparent distance between the two emotions – feeling bored and feeling overwhelmed – is among many disparities that Tsai plays with in Journey to the West. Journey to the West knowingly engages and then defies the impulses of the viewer: the impulse for order, the impulse for action; the impulse against loneliness; the impulse against immanence.
Journey to the West is a red-robed monk (Lee Kang-sheng) moving incredibly slowly through Marseilles in all but two of the fourteen long and exquisitely composed shots that comprise the film. Another man (Denis Lavant) follows, his presence unexplained. Lavant is a new addition to the walker, who pins together an informal collection of previous Tsai shorts including the eponymous 2012 Walker. While Lavant’s presence is contingent, and the walker is constant, Journey thwarts the imposition of a character hierarchy by opening on Lavant’s face. An extreme close-up, the shot looks more like topography than portraiture: low lighting exaggerates the terrain of skin and but for his breath, pulse, and a single tear, Lavant is still.
Tsai levels out any vertical order of attachment or identification without forsaking the intimacy that compels us to make them. The protraction of his shots often allows us the time and the space to observe the interactions, grimaces, giggles, and distractions of other passers-by who quickly move in and out of our attention. A breathtakingly perfect shot of a sixteen-minute descent into the subway, which feels like the heart of the film, is a prime site for such observation. Of course, there is also the intimacy of observation with those who don’t move at all. In one particularly superb scene, we find ourselves looking at a rather mournful looking man as he sits alone on an unkempt sofa as shadow creeps over the room. Next to him is a mirror, still cast in sunlight from an outside that is only seen in reflection – and, of course, it is in this reflection that the monk gradually inches across a tiny segment of the shot, unseen by the sad man whose vision remains fixed on a point we cannot share.
The monk is often absent from a shot for long minutes before he appears as a tiny but unmistakably bright figure in the side of the frame. Although it also can be considered at length alongside other divergencies in the film – such as the centralised temporal disparity – the independence of the camera from its human subject seems to primarily be the manifestation of Tsai’s stated commitment to cinema as image before story. In Journey to the West it is also evidence of the vast emotive capacity of non-narrative film. The lingering camera and the quasi-panoramic choice of subjects are expansive and alienating simultaneously. Journey to the West is a lonely film. It’s not necessarily a sad one, but it is lonely. In a 2002 interview, 1 Tsai told a journalist: “I enjoy putting characters in environments where it seems like they have no relationships with others because I want to think about what kind of distance we should keep between each other. I also like to put people in situations where they do not have love, because I want to know how much love we need, and what kind of relationships we want.”
It’s not just the characters that Tsai does this to in Journey to the West: he does it to us, too. The stripping of the image in Journey to the West is a layered challenge for the viewer. It’s not just ‘Where do we look?’ amidst the detail of composition, and ‘How long can we wait?’ before we walk out, like the couple near me did. The inherent sensuality – that is, the inherent material and sensory nature of film, not an eroticism – of film is often forgotten. We forget to engage – we fixate on the story, on the idea, the transcendent communicative potential – and forget our own material, embodied engagement with the act of watching a movie. In demanding that we abandon the desire for stories and, to an extent, even ideas, Journey puts the viewer in an awareness of their own individual engagement – of the supremacy and singularity of the immanent and sensual experience. In the same 2002 interview Tsai remarked, “loneliness and isolation are part of human nature.” The final scene, undoubtedly my favourite, is framed through an overhead reflection. It’s disorientating, and not immediately made explicit – and when it is, it feels to be a final parting remark on the impossibility of a subjective medium, which we can only engage with in the confines of our singular individuality, ever possessing the objectivity of transcendence.
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