In “Journey to the West,” helmer Tsai Ming-liang’s perennial protagonist, Lee Kang-sheng, inches with excruciating slowness through Marseille’s land- and cityscapes in a series of 14 magnificently composed shots. Garbed in a monk’s red robe that makes him immediately discernible within the city’s subdued palette, his barely moving presence turns the frame itself into narrative, with all passing figures in the tableau defined by their reactions to him. Like some ambulatory anachronism, his stillness conjures up an alternate space-time continuum, another dimension slowly unfolding from within the core of urban hubbub. This exquisite 56-minute gem should glow at fests and museums.
Loosely based on the life of Xuanzang, a seventh-century Buddhist monk who trekked across Asia for 17 years in search of “the void,” “Journey to the West” marks the sixth such snaillike cinematic perambulation from Tsai and Lee. “The walker,” as Tsai refers to Lee’s monk, recently appeared in shorts or anthology segments of varying lengths, but always as the solitary slow mover. Here he is joined by vet French thesp Denis Lavant (“Beau Travail,” “Holy Motors”). In contrast with Lee’s “Nouvelle vague”-evoking encounters with Jean-Pierre Leaud in earlier Tsai films, Lee and Lavant never meet, as Lee’s monk remains completely inward-focused, his eyes downcast and never reacting to anything around him. But the film plays amusingly with the juxtaposition of the two mimes.
At first, Tsai and lenser Antoine Heberle alternate shots of Lavant or Lee alone in the frame. The opening fixed take, lasting more than eight minutes, captures Lavant’s face in an underlit extreme closeup, unmoving except for his labored breathing and a single tear trickling downward. Next to this extenuated monochromatic non-action, the following shorter shots of the vibrantly robed Lee, advancing centimeter by centimeter across the floor and then up the steps of a dark decrepit building, seem positively frenetic. Not until the sixth shot do the two coexist in the same frame: Lavant’s craggy, upturned face dominates the foreground as Lee’s tiny, red-clad monk makes his steady, tortoise-like way across the background.
As the film progresses, the stationary long takes become increasingly crowded, Lee’s barely advancing presence in the middle of busy sidewalks and stairwells eliciting everything from brief annoyance to fascination to total obliviousness. Sometimes Tsai frames his shots with the same sly humor that’s never completely absent from his work, as when Lee slow-walks past a human figure more immobile than he is — a trendily dressed sidewalk dummy. Relatively brief shots of lonely rooms with a man drinking coffee or sprawled in a chair are suddenly transformed as the monk unexpectedly hovers into view through a window or reflected in a mirror.
Composed with arresting beauty is the 14-minute centerpiece that sees Lee descending a long subway staircase, the light behind him haloing him in summery splendor. Here the passersby have more time to register his strangeness, exclaiming to one another or pausing briefly to stare, but most of them stride briskly past. Only one girl stops to gaze in wonderment, monitoring his progress with something between anxiety and awe.
As the frames grow more complex, viewers must more actively choose their focus, as multiple intersecting streams of pedestrians, patrons at sidewalk cafes and reflections in passing buses vie for attention with the unreactive monk. Sometimes Tsai lets long moments pass without a sighting, only to have Lee pop up on a side street, having unexpectedly (and unknowingly) acquired a disciple — Lavant now trails behind him, his infinitesimal movements synched with uncanny precision to Lee’s.
In the film’s beguiling final shot, a busy microcosm captured upside-down in a mirrored canopy, the viewer searches in vain among the small, inverted figures for the red-robed visitor from another dimension. It is not until the monk edges into the frame long enough to be fully noticed that the film can end.