Saturday, November 8, 2014

San Diego Asian Film Festival 2014 Review: Tsai Ming-liang's "Journey to the West"

Journey to the West (Xi you). 2014. Written and directed by Tsai Ming-liang. Produced by Vincent Wang and Fred Bellaiche. Cinematography by Antoine Heberle. Edited by Lei Zhen Qing. Music by Sebastien Mauro. Sound engineering by Frederic Salles. Sound editing by Xavier Dreyfuss.

Cast: Lee Kang Sheng, Denis Lavant.

(Note: this review was originally posted on Asian in NY.)

At last year’s Venice Film Festival, where Taiwanese master auteur Tsai Ming-liang’s most recent feature Stray Dogs premiered, Tsai announced that it would be his last. And indeed, Stray Dogs, which contained references to just about every other film in his oeuvre and featured most of his regular actors, did have the feel of a final statement. However, this was before Tsai won the Grand Jury Prize at Venice, so it remains to be seen whether this will encourage him to continue, and prove his “retirement” to be as lasting as Steven Soderbergh or Jay-Z’s.

The most hopeful sign that this will be the case is the fact that just a few months after Venice, at the Berlin Film Festival, Tsai debuted another major work, Journey to the West, a sublime, contemplative creation that is one of his finest. Of course, this is not to be confused with Stephen Chow’s recent big-budgeted blockbuster hit of the same name. Other than the fact that the two films share a title and are based in their own ways on the same classic Chinese narrative, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with two works more dissimilar, or that seem more to exist in separate universes.

Tsai’s Journey to the West evades any sort of easy classification. At just a few minutes shy of an hour, it doesn’t quite qualify as a feature. It also exists far outside the realm of narrative cinema, and is more akin to an art installation.

This is the sixth in Tsai Ming-liang’s series of short films starring his regular lead actor/perennial muse Lee Kang-sheng as a slow-walking monk making his travels in various urban centers around the globe. This ongoing project was inspired by a performance Lee gave in a stage play Tsai wrote and directed called “Only You,” in which Lee walked very slowly on the stage. As Tsai writes in his statement included in the Journey to the West press notes: “His performance was so perfect that I decided to film it. His walking, so special and so slow, recalls that of Xuanzang, the holy monk of the Tang Dynasty, who traveled thousands of kilometers seeking the holy scriptures.”

The series began with Tsai’s 2012 short “Walker,” shot in Hong Kong, which established the template: Lee Kang-sheng, dressed in red monk’s robes, barefoot, head down and arms out in a supplicating gesture, walks very, very slowly, his infinitesimal progress across the frame existing in sharp contrast to the bustle of the city and the people around him. Lee represents a meditative oasis in the midst of the rapid activity that surrounds him, and the films are the apotheosis of Tsai’s inimitable style of wordless contemplation, his riposte to the fast-cutting and over-plotted narrative noise of most other films.

Journey to the West moves the (non)action to Marseille, France, and this time Lee’s monk gains a disciple of sorts, in the person of inimitable French actor Denis Lavant, best known for his collaborations with iconoclastic French auteur Leos Carax (Lovers on the Bridge, Holy Motors). The film consists of 14 shots, most of them relatively brief, save for two lengthy centerpiece scenes. It begins with a very long shot, a nearly ten-minute close-up of Denis Lavant’s face as he is reclining. With the only sounds on the soundtrack Lavant’s labored breathing, we are invited to contemplate every wrinkle and crevasse on Lavant’s uniquely craggy visage. In this and every subsequent shot, Tsai challenges us to view images in a very different way than we are used to, the regard the act of seeing as a sort of contemplative meditation, the slowness and austerity of the shot forcing us to engage actively with the image, rather than be a passive consumer, as in most other films. In this goal, Tsai succeeds immensely, with exquisitely composed artistry and rather unexpected humor.

The film’s two longest shots perfectly illustrate this. The film’s longest shot is a nearly 20-minute shot of Lee slowly descending a staircase down into a subway, the camera imperceptibly moving to capture his deliberative descent. The delicate movement, colors, and composition of the frame is mesmerizing and simply stunning. Sunlight shines in a halo surrounding the monk, as dust motes fly in the air. The reactions of the people who go past him are also fascinating to watch. The monk mostly has the side of the staircase he is descending to himself, as most of the other commuters going into the subway regard him as an obstruction to get around, and a brief object of curiosity. The only person who regards him closely is a little girl who lingers at the top of the stairs, staring at him curiously as she seemingly waits for a relative to pick her up.

The other long scene features Levant; before this, Lee and Levant are kept apart, existing in separate shots or in scenes where Levant is close to the camera while Lee is a figure in the distance. However, in a long scene in front of an outdoor café, Lee does his slow walk in front of a group of curious and amused onlookers and passerby. As Lee walks, Lavant suddenly appears behind him, walking slowly as well, mirroring Lee’s slow movement almost perfectly, his mimicry a supreme expression of inspired devotion.

Journey to the West ends with its most surprising and striking shot, an upside-down view of a scene, where the mirrored surface of a canopy occupies three quarters of the frame. We scan the scene for the iconic red-robed monk, but we don’t find him. After awhile, the familiar presence appears, entering the upper right of the frame. And with that the film ends, with this postscript from Tsai, quoting the Diamond Sutra:

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. 

This perfectly expresses the philosophy behind, and the beauty of, the sublime cinema art Tsai Ming-liang has been creating for over two decades. Hopefully, this isn’t the last we’ve heard from this endlessly brilliant artist of cinema.

Journey to the West screens on November 10, 8:40pm as part of the San Diego Asian Film Festival, preceded by the short "Walker." For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit the festival's website.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

San Diego Asian Film Festival 2014 Review: Lou Ye's "Blind Massage"

Blind Massage (Tui na). 2014. Directed by Lou Ye. Produced by Wang Yong. Written by Ma Yingli, based on the novel "Tui na" by Bi Feiyu. Cinematography by Zeng Jian. Edited by Kong Jinlei and Zhu Lin. Music by Johann Johannsson. Production design by Du Ailin. Costume design by Zhang Dingmu. Sound by Fu Kang.

Cast: Qin Hao, Guo Xiaodong, Huang Xuan, Zhang Lei, Mei Ting, Huang Lu, Jiang Dan, Huang Junjun, Mu Huaipeng, Wang Zhihua, Wang Lu.

(Note: this review was originally posted on Twitch.)

Often controversial Chinese filmmaker Lou Ye delivers one of his finest films with Blind Massage, a delicately observed and artfully directed ensemble drama, based on the novel of the same name by Bi Feiyu. Putting aside, at least for the time being, the intensely sexualized scenarios that marked some of his previous films (Summer Palace, Spring Fever, Love and Bruises, Mystery), Lou immerses us in a unique world - that of the blind - that's never been captured on film in quite this way. Sighted professional actors playing blind, including some Lou regulars, mesh seamlessly with actual non-sighted and partially-sighted amateurs to create a broad canvas encompassing several stories that are all engrossing and beautifully rendered.

Blind Massage begins with an offscreen narrator (who is heard intermittently throughout the film) telling the story of Xiao Ma (Huang Xuan) who lost his sight in a car accident that killed his mother. After he learns that his blindness is permanent and not a temporary condition as he'd been led to believe, he attempts suicide by cutting his own throat. After being saved, he is taught Braille and later joins the Sha Zongqi Massage Center in Nanjing, where blind and partially sighted masseurs and masseuses service customers and are provided with a home and livelihood. This is also where most of the action in the film takes place, in this bustling, crowded environment where joys, pain, and passions play themselves out in a way that is quite mesmerizing to behold.

After the opening credits - which, appropriately in a film about the blind, are read aloud rather than printed onscreen - we are introduced to the other workers and residents of the center. As the narrator tells us, the film initially takes place in the "golden age of blind massage." The center is run by two men with opposite personalities: the garrulous, self-styled ladies man Sha Fuming (Qin Hao) and the more subdued and serious Zhang Zongqi (Wang Zhihua). Sha's old classmate Wang (Guo Xiaodong), fleeing Shenzhen with his tail between his legs after losing his shirt on bad stocks, asks Fuming for a job, since Wang is also a trained masseur.

Wang brings along his fiancé, the partially sighted Kong (Zhang Lei), a sassy and flirtatious young woman who very quickly becomes Xiao Ma's object of erotic obsession. Sensing Xiao Ma's frustration over his unrequited desire, his friend Zhang Yiguang (Mu Huaipeng) takes him to Nanjing's red-light district, and to a very different kind of massage parlor, where Xiao Ma meets Mann (Huang Lu), a beautiful young prostitute; they soon forge a much closer relationship than the normal hooker-client one. However, Xiao Ma still can't let go of his feelings for Kong.

Meanwhile, Fuming falls head over heels for a new masseuse, Du Hong (Mei Ting); she fends off his advances, and generally finds the other male workers' obsession with her beauty to be a burden. Also, Wang has to defend his younger brother from some scary loan sharks; he backs them off by performing a startlingly violent and rather gory bit of self-sacrifice.

Lou Ye and screenwriter Ma Yingli weave all these stories together with sensitivity, compassion, and an elegant artistry that is often stunning. In a presumably similar way to Bi Feiyu's source material, these blind characters are not held up as objects of pity nor are their stories presented as vehicles for cheaply inspirational uplift. Instead, they appear to us as full human beings, with the same joys, laughter, pains, suffering, and sexual desires as so-called "normal" people. They're not over-romanticized, either; some of them are seen committing some rather negative and unsavory acts. At the same time, the dignity with which they practice their craft and carry themselves is quite remarkable; one of the films' best scenes has the blind workers leading sighted visitors safely out of the building during a blackout.

Blind Massage also finds a wonderful way to approximate for sighted viewers the experience of blindness; vertiginous close-ups, blurry and impressionistic visual textures, and odd angles form a great deal of the visual schema of the film. This is a great testament to the talents of cinematographer Zeng Jian, who won a Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution at this year's Berlin Film Festival for his work. Also contributing greatly to the evocative mood is Icelandic composer Johann Johannson - who also scored Lou Ye's previous film Mystery - who provides a spare, minimalist score that beautifully undergirds the rich landscape of human emotions that Ye and his collaborators have so vividly created.

Blind Massage screens on November 8, 3:45pm as part of the San Diego Asian Film Festival. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the festival's website.