20th KIFF

Journey to West

Abhijit Ghosh-Dastidar

Journey to the west (Taiwan / France 2014, colour, 56 mins) shown at 20th Kolkata International Film Festival by Tsai Ming Liang, is loosely based on the life of a seventh century Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, who trekked across Asia for 17 years, in search of the void. A man is lying down by a sea shore, bathing heavily and the sound of rushing waters. The camera is on the face of the man, looking upwards, in the fixed frame. Cut to the next shot, extending 8 mins, to a Buddhist monk (Lee Kang-Sheng) in red robe, looking down with one leg hanging, and feet stretched forward. A dark passage near a window and some light are discernible. The monk is adrift, almost elevated. A leg is above ground, and pulled back. Bright sunlight appears, with sound of sea gulls, from cliffs close-by. There is a sound, and a jump cut to a wall in red sepia. The drifting monk emerges from right to screen, with only his hand and part of his face visible. Gradually the full physical structure is in sight, with right fingers bent, as if in recitation of prayers. The scenario moves to the sea shore, with small islets and a coast. A man’s face is visible on the beach. People move about on the shore line concrete. Sound of Piano music resonates on the dock.

Antoine Heberle’s camera returns to the foreground. The monk, in red robes, is stopping for alms. In the background are busy streets, with rushing traffic and pedestrians. The opening fixed take lasts more than eight minutes, with alternating shots of the monk and a curious Frenchman (Denis Lavant), with moist eyes. The monochromatic non-action is followed by the monk advancing steadily across the floor and then up the steps of a dark, decrepit building. The monk and the Frenchman co-exist in the same frame only in the sixth shot. The foreground is dominated by the Frenchman’s craggy upturned face, as the monk slowly and steadily, makes his way in the background. There is an African man, with back to camera. The monk keeps his right foot raised, and waits on top of the stairs. There is a room, with iron roads on window. Off screen voices are in French. The staircase and the footpath are caught in single frame. A mother and daughter take a photo of the monk, who stares outside to sunlight. Children find the monk curious, who is facing the staircase. A white butterfly passes, as the monk steps from top to midway of staircase, still looking down. The light on staircase decreases to almost darkness, even though there is light outside. An open air ‘Tour Marseille’ bus, full of tourists, halts on the main road. People take photos. The monk stands on toes at a kerb near a roadside restaurant, with hands outstretched. Nobody gives alms.

Some passer-bys stop in curiosity. The French man, in denim jackets, tries to follow the monk’s slow movements from the rear. The monk walks away from the frame, while the shadow of the imitating French man with right foot raised, is caught on the roadway. A cut to an upside down image of the road, presents the passer-bys and everything upside down. Birds are chirping. Buildings and cars return to normal vista. Piano music accompanies the contemplation : ‘‘Like a tiny drop of dew, or bubble floating down the stream’’. The series of 14 composed shots pan Marseille’s land and city scapes. The frame becomes the narrative for the monk’s barely moving presence. Passing figures in the tableau are defined by their reaction to him, on the busy sidewalks and stairwells of a subway. Antoine Heberle’s mobile camera heightens the cultural differences and incongruities.

Vol. 48, No. 3, July 26 - Aug 1, 2015