The penultimate shot of Tsai Ming-liang’s recent Stray Dogs is a 13-minute close-up of Lee Kang-sheng and Chen Shiang-chyi’s characters achingly regarding a mural on a wall. Their sense of almost holy contemplation is encoded in the very being of the Taiwanese auteur’s follow-up, Journey to the West, with Tsai stationary camera and customary use of long takes observing little more than a nameless Buddhist monk (Lee) inching along urban landscapes in Marseilles, France, with visual beauty extracted from the contrast between his snail’s-pace movements and the hustle and bustle of his surroundings. Maintaining constant eye contact on his feet, seemingly oblivious to what’s around him, the monk appears trapped in a zone of perpetual meditation, one in which time is of no consequence as he works his way, step by carefully considered step, toward some never-specified destination.
This isn’t the first time Tsai has chronicled the extraordinarily deliberate travels of this anonymous red-clothed spiritual figure. The filmmaker’s 2012 short Walker first set Lee’s world traveler against urban backdrops in central Hong Kong, from crowded marketplaces in the daytime to relatively desolate billboard ads at night, and since then, the monk has appeared in four shorts (No Form, Sleepwalk, Diamond Sutra, and Walking on Water). Journey to the West differs from those films in crucial ways, beginning with its minimal plot. It draws certain basic elements from the classic 16th-century Chinese novel of the same name (most recently adapted for the screen by Stephen Chow) and fits them to Tsai’s distinct sensibility. If Lee’s monk could be said to be the enlightenment-seeking Tang Sanzang of this scenario, then consider Denis Lavant—whose visage is captured in extreme close-up during the film’s opening shot, in a prolonged moment of anguished rest—a concatenation of his demon-hunting disciples. He seemingly rises from the mountains to follow his master into Marseilles, as encapsulated in a late long take of Lavant simply and painstakingly following Lee’s motions in front of a café within a busy town square.
Even that minimal through line, however, ultimately takes a backseat to Tsai’s abstract mise-en-scène, which takes a more playfully varied approach compared to Walker in the ways Lee’s character is framed. In Journey to the West, relatively conventional medium shots detail his “escape” from a temple in the film’s second and third shots; in other extreme wide shots, he’s a mere speck in a vast panorama of humanity, with only his red robe and measured gait to distinguish him from the rest of the urban dwellers. We even see him from the perspective of others, most notably in one interior shot of a man’s apartment in which the man gets up and looks out his window as Lee slowly passes by. Natural lighting plays an integral part in one of its longest shots, though, as we see the monk going down a train stations’ steps, the sunlight behind him seeming to cast a heavenly glow on him as he descends into the ground.
One moment during that drawn-out trip down the stairs especially stands out, as a girl stops to stare at him, seemingly transfixed by his movements even as everyone else rushes past him. But the significance of this one oddly touching moment doesn’t fully register until Tsai unveils a concluding epigraph from the Diamond Sutra that puts the film in perspective: “All composed things are like a dream/A phantom, a drop of dew, or a flash of lightning/That is how to meditate on them/That is how to observe them.” Seeing the world with fresh eyes—that’s what the girl’s wonderment reveals, and that’s what each immaculately composed shot of Journey to the West proposes. Suddenly, the final shot of a whole city square seen upside down via a grand mirror reflection acquires an even deeper meaning beyond the immediate pleasure of its sheer inventiveness. Tsai’s cinema has always been founded on discovering the beautifully surreal in the seemingly everyday, often without the safety net of dialogue. Consider this short but sweet new work of his, then, a near-wordless statement of purpose.