For me, two of the best films screening at this year’s Berlinale are premiering in the Forum program, and both happen to be pure executions of simple concepts. Both also incorporate time and silences in ways that allow the viewer to discover subtle complexities.
Tsai Ming-liang’s Journey to the West (Xi You) is part of an ongoing project, one of a series of short and medium-length films that, as the festival succinctly puts it, “expand Lee Kang-sheng’s thirty minute slow walking performance at Taipei’s National Theatre into a ‘slow walking expedition.'” Among the shorts are No Form and Diamond Sutra; Walker, originally part of the omnibus film Beautiful 2012, is a bit longer, and you can watch it below. If you don’t have a spare half-hour at the moment, Lee, dressed in a bright red Buddhist robe, his hands before him at chest level and opened slightly skyward, thumb and middle finger nearly touching, his head bowed, walks at an excruciatingly slow pace through open environments—Marseille in the case of Journey to the West—where most (but not all) of the hustling passersby pretend not to notice him. Lee:
For the rest of my life, walking will probably be a continuation. We will try to walk in different cities, record this experience and make them into a few films. Actually, I hope my pace could be slower. I always think we should maintain something while living, and don’t consume all resources that fast. Let time pass slowly, then we can see the surroundings and the entire world more clearly. It takes time to see things clear.
And Tsai has taken his own good time in deciding how to film the performance. Running just short of an hour, Journey to the West is comprised of fourteen shots, each radically different from the others in its startling composition. The standout for me is one in which Lee descends a set of stone stairs, the light of the setting sun outlining his figure in white, then bright yellow, then gold. In this particular shot/scene, a young French girl is not going to pretend she can’t see him. She seems to be concerned for him and maybe can’t understand why no one’s going to help strange man get along to wherever it is he’s going. “Bouddhiste!” someone says helpfully, and the girl eventually wanders off. But the time she spends standing there worrying is less than half the total of the shot. Once she’s gone, we notice that the sun is setting and the light is changing and, as Lee says, we are seeing “the entire world more clearly.”
The big news about this particular walking movie is that there is another player this time around: Denis Lavant. We know that Adam Cook has interviewed Lavant, and I very much look forward to hearing about how he wound up working with Tsai and Lee, but whatever the back story, not only does it make perfect sense—Lavant is an actor who seems eager to discover new challenges into which he can throw his entire body—but Tsai makes the most of his participation. In two separate shots, he turns Lavant’s face into a craggy landscape of living rock and water.
WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
Jonathan Romney for Screen Daily: “The film is a tribute to the astonishing physical and mental discipline of Lee Kang-Sheng, one of the great Everyman figures in modern cinema, and to the elegance and mastery of a director whose films represent a subtle, constantly surprising and often moving brand of minimalism that’s entirely his own. Journey to the West shows that style at its simplest and most rarefied, but also, in a gloriously counter-intuitive way, its most directly pleasurable.”
“There are two or three shots in this film which simply defy belief,” writes David Jenkins at Little White Lies, “and Tsai’s customary long takes don’t just allow time to drink in the rich detail of the people and surroundings, but to decipher logistical givens such as where the camera is, what angle it’s pointed where in the frame will the action appear. Above everything, Journey to the West makes most (if not all) other directors look blind to the sublime possibilities of the frame.”
More from Deborah Young in the Hollywood Reporter.
Updates, 2/21: “Sometimes a career made up of rich, complex work can arrive at a masterpiece so simple it seems strange to place it on the same pedestal as what came before,” writes Adam Cook in the Notebook. “After years of amazing works in narrative cinema, Abbas Kiarostami’s Five (2003) seems so unambitious—and yet, for me, it is his most pure, moving film. The same can be said of Tsai Ming-liang’s Journey to the West… It is difficult to convey the endlessly compelling properties of each shot, the sheer pleasure of the discovery of detail becoming profound in its unfolding.” Adam‘s followed up with more thoughts as well: “Having met Denis Lavant for an interview after having seen the film, I was taken aback by the man’s small stature, and the way aspects of his physical on-screen presence seemed hidden in person…. The cinema-space’s ability to alter recorded objects by revealing details is staggering.”
“It is truly amazing how much Tsai is able to accomplish with such a minimal premise,” writes Giovanni Marchini Camia for Film Comment. “The film is utterly mesmerizing for every one of its 56 minutes and manages to elicit an extraordinary range of emotions.”
José Sarmiento Hinojosa at desistfilm: “A collaboration long overdue, and a must-see film.”
“When I was seven years old, the phone rang at my home, and I answered. I was told that if my father kept refereeing, then one day he’d be killed. My father continued to referee.” So begins the director’s statement that Corneliu Porumboiu has released with The Second Game (Al doilea joc), and indeed, the second of the two films I was referring to at the top. Adrian Porumboiu did indeed carry on referring soccer games and a crucial showdown took place in the winter of 1988, almost exactly one year before the Romanian Revolution would topple the regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu.
As noted in the clip below, the two opposing teams, Dinamo and Steaua, were, more or less, the teams representing the army and the secret police, and you can be damn sure that both wanted to win—and that, well before the match, each side did its best to intimidate the ref. Corneliu was thirteen at the time and terrified for his father. A quarter of a century later, they pop a tape of the game into the VCR, press play, watch, and when and if they feel like, talk.
That’s the set-up—and the entirety of the 97-minute film. And it’s brilliant. We do not cut away to the faces of father and son or to anything else. We’re watching the game with them. Period. And it must play all the way through, straight. More than once, Adrian asks if they might rewind and catch a particular play again, but Corneliu, almost apologetically, explains that, no, they cannot. Corneliu asks about the intimidation and Adrian’s pretty frank and open about how it went down. But he held on to his integrity and refereed fair and square.
Best of all is the snow. Adrian admits that, had he known it’d soon be coming down so fast and thick, he’d have postponed the game. The players press on, slipping and sliding, but they are slowed, making for a game that, for all the political tension, won’t go down in history of one of Europe’s most exciting matches. But the snow… on VHS. Beautiful. And the silences. After a lull of maybe a few minutes in which neither father nor son has said a word while they watch the players trod back and forth, Corneliu says, “Nothing’s happening.” And adds with a laugh, “It’s like one of my films.”
WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
Updates, 2/21: “The Second Game shows us how a space so un-cinematic can be made just the opposite, here with the play between a temporal neutrality, a sparingly casual presence of father and son in dialogue, and the push and pull between the match’s relative insignificance, and the history it hints at,” writes Adam Cook in the Notebook.
David Jenkins in Little White Lies: “Corneliu opines that there’s a certain poetry how the figures move on this snow-covered pitch, to which his father responds abruptly, ‘There is no poetry here.’ As with 12.08 East of Bucharest and Police, Adjective, The Second Game is about opposing definitions of poetry, and just as details of the men’s relationship and political machinations of the time can be drawn as much from the long pauses in conversation as the words spoken, so too can poetry be found and anticipation be generated from this football match in which nothing happens.”
Denis Côte‘s Bestiaire made my top ten of 2012, his Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, my top ten of 2013. Unfortunately, a first viewing of Joy of Man’s Desiring (Que ta joie demeure) didn’t grip me with quite the same force. The opening promises intrigue. A woman (Emilie Sigouin) looks over her shoulder, straight into the camera, and tells us that she’s prepared for a long-term relationship, or rather, prepared to prepare, provided we meet certain conditions. Primarily, we—or whoever else it might be that she’s speaking to, we can’t be sure, but ultimately, we—and her are going to have to work hard to build trust. If we cross her, she’ll destroy us. But if we prove worthy of her trust and love, she’ll reveal her “secrets.”
Who is this woman? Capitalism is an idea that was floated during a post-screening discussion. I tend toward work, just plain cold work, the obvious subject of Joy. “I let myself be haunted by the terrifying idea that we all have to work and eventually find serenity, rest, a sense of accomplishment,” says Côté in his director’s statement. He raises “abstract questions that only a fairly abstract film can address. At first, I wanted to film the effort and beauty in the movements of work… I knew it would lead to an allegory. I also knew the device would be shattered along the way, and that I’d include some trickery using actors.” The trailer pretty well captures what he was shooting for at first:
But the trailer doesn’t hint at any of the considerable trickery with actors. These involve casual conversations about jobs on the one hand and stagey recitals of declamatory texts on the other, all happening at the workplace. In one sequence, “This is half my life” is shouted over and over. It could well be that closer study of what’s said and how it’s said might reveal something more, but for the time being, from what I could glean the first time around, Joy isn’t, overall, as challenging or engaging as the film by Côté it most closely resembles, Bestiaire.
WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
In the Hollywood Reporter, Stephen Dalton winds up going a tad more harsh that I would: “Moving between different industrial spaces, Côté’s method mostly consists of artfully composed static shots and slow zooms into heavy machinery. These scenes have a stark, vaguely menacing beauty…. Joy of Man’s Desiring constantly hints at interesting themes—like the psychology of manual labor in a mechanised age, or the broad cultural mix of Francophone immigrants among Quebecois factory workers—but never develops them with sufficient depth. Rich subject, poor delivery.”