J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Tribeca ’14: Journey to the West

Pilgrimages are supposed to be slow and arduous. That also seems to be the case for experimental cinema. Xuanzang, the iconic monk protagonist of Wu Cheng’en’s classic Ming-Era novel led quite the adventurous life, but Tsai Ming-liang slows it down dramatically for his avant-garde contemporary riff, Journey to the West (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

Tsai regular Lee Kang-sheng returns as ambling focal character from the director’s recent short, The Walker, but given the loaded title, we can also think of him as the second coming of fictional Xuanzang (or the historical Xuanzang on whom he was based). There will be no Monkey Kings for him to battle, but Denis Lavant will literally follow in his footsteps through the streets of Marseilles.

Tsai’s sense of composition is often slyly witty and cinematographer Antoine Heberle gives each frame the luster of Renaissance Old Masters, but there is no denying its static nature. This Journey is best considered in the tradition of film installations, such as Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves (soon to grace the San Francisco International Film Festival). However, the British filmmaker’s ode to Chinese goddesses is considerably more cinematic thanks to the spectacle of Maggie Cheung hovering above the Shanghai skyline in the guise of the goddess Mazu and Zhao Tao’s eerie recreation of scenes from tragic actress Ruan Lingyu’s definitive film, The Goddess.

Let’s be honest, extreme close-ups of Zhao and Cheung make much more sense than Lavant’s haggard countenance. Lee’s physical discipline is commendable and his featured calligraphy is quite elegant. It also just nice to see he and Tsai still share their close collaborative bond, but that is something one can glean from the festival write-up.

Frankly, it is mind-boggling to think the same source novel kind of-sort of inspired Tsai’s fifty-six minute Journey to the West and Stephen Chow’s breakneck apocalyptic smackdown of the same name. More interesting on paper than on screen, this is the sort of film you can duck into for a few minutes and pretty fully get its gist (whereas Waves genuinely sucks viewers in). Festival goers will have a chance to do exactly that when the Tribeca Film Festival presents Tsai’s Journey free of charge at MoMA PS1, playing continuously from noon to 6:00 this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday (4/24-4/26). It also screens conventionally this Tuesday (4/22) at the SVA Theater, but only those who deem plot and characterization optional should consider it.

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