Tsai Ming-liang's Walker (2012) and No No Sleep (2015) are showing on MUBI starting September 19, 2020 in many countries in a double bill.
Tsai Ming-liang once described his interest in the seventh-century monk Chen Xuanzang as an “obsession.” Popularized in the classic Ming dynasty novel Journey to the West, the monk made a pilgrimage along the Silk Road, to India, which ended up taking seventeen years. As Tsai recounts, “There was no car, no train, no airplane, and no cell phone. He just walked.” The novel paints Xuanzang as a foot servant obeying the orders of the imperial court, but for Tsai he is a “rebel.” In earlier historical documents—the inspiration for Tsai’s series of Walker films—Xuanzang defies the state’s travel ban because he believes the Buddhist sutras must be translated from Sanskrit and imported to China. Tsai told another interviewer that Xuanzang was “one of the three most important men in my life.”
The other two, presumably, are Tsai’s father, a quiet man who died when he was young, and the actor Lee Kang-sheng, who appears in every one of Tsai’s features and is entwined into their very DNA. First spotted in 1991—a beautiful boy-teen loitering on a motorbike, the stuff of a queer young man’s dreams—Lee is the pure rebel poet in Tsai’s filmic universe. Tsai loves not only the way Lee looks on camera, but also the way that he moves. A throwback to the pre-modern world inhabited by Xuanzang—no cars, no cell phones—Lee cannot be rushed. He is unwittingly slow. Though this natural quality of his has also been exacerbated by a neck injury (supposedly acquired when a shard of porcelain got lodged there during the shooting of 1992’s Rebels of the Neon God), visible in Tsai’s most recent feature, Days (2020).
Across the decades Tsai’s filmmaking has been shaped by Lee’s enchanting slowness, to the point where it is now at risk of becoming a critic’s cliché, almost impossible to speak of Tsai without muttering the s-word in the same breath. His taste for static framing, distilled narratives, and extended takes that linger more than patiently have long seen him bundled in with the heroes of “slow cinema”—with the 6-minute shot of Yang Kuei-mei bawling that ends Vive L’Amour (1994) or the 14-minute finale of Stray Dogs (2013) just two of many cinching tour-de-force examples.
The blissed-out union of Tsai’s two rebels is the Walker series. An endlessly expanding project that slips somewhere between non-narrative filmmaking, installation, and performance art, the series began officially in 2012, but was born the year previous from his National Theatre play, Only You, after Lee devised a monumental slow-walk across the length of the stage. Seventeen minutes long during rehearsals, then stretched to a half hour on show night, the scene left the director profoundly moved: “What remained was only bare time and a strong sense of existence that we never felt before.”
To date, the Walker series encompasses eight films and a work of theatre (2014’s The Monk from Tang Dynasty). In each iteration, Lee “plays” Xuanzang. With his head shaved and dressed in scarlet red monk robes, he walks in super, super slo-mo, practicing a form of the Buddhist walking meditation kinhin that demands extraordinary concentration and poise, lifting and eventually resting his foot at an incantatory, otherworldly pace.
The first outing is No Form (2012). Lee’s monk graces the crowded streets of Taipei, and then zones out into an abstracted, emptied, white-cube space: he is both subject and art object; exposed to the crush of being in the world and then moving ecstatically beyond. The idea is expanded in the second film, Walker (2012)—the short that gives the series its unpretentious name.
Walker opens with a rear-view shot of Lee descending a concrete stairwell to join the lumpen fray. Partially glimpsed through the door frame, people in unremarkable modern outfits zip back and forth, while Lee clears a whopping three steps in the two-minute shot. After Tsai cuts to the next static frame—revealing a wall plastered with aggressively colorful advertisements, in front of which Lee emerges in profile, head bowed, glacially inching left to right—it’s impossible to not read the monk in relation to, even in explicit protest against our progress-driven world.
In Tsai’s cinema, the modern city has always looked coolly at its wandering souls—the crowds are faceless masses, the industrial architecture is alienating and mean. But where earlier films like The Hole (1998) were yoked to the aches of his characters, Walker’s steadying use of the monk and his superhuman devotion shifts attention to the surrounding streets of Hong Kong. Recorded with documentary-like specificity, the hustle and bustle of urban life begins to feel like an absurd deranging assault. There are belligerent beeping cars, ads for yoga classes and insomnia treatments, cheap neon signs, and jackhammers that pick at the brain (in toto, a depressingly banal reincarnation of the monsters and demons who waylay Xuanzang’s original epic journey.)
A handful of perplexed pedestrians stop to watch Lee’s mesmerizing street theatre, some even filming on their phones. But most people—echoing those who pass his desolate sign holder in Stray Dogs—overtake him, or pass without a second glance. The critique is implicit: we are moving too fast to properly see anything or anyone around us. This is of course tragic to Tsai, who sees Lee’s performances as Xuanzang as amongst their most revelatory collaborations. His feeling is shared with those of us who experience the films’ Zen rhythms, giving them our undivided attention, serenely riveted to the screen.
While the series offers a counterpoint to the dizzying speed of contemporary life—joining films that esteem other modes of living, such as James Benning’s Henry David Thoreau and the Unabomber-inspired Two Cabins (2010)—Tsai has frequently said he doesn’t make work for an intended audience or affect. Rather, he just shoots what he likes; he makes the films that he wants to see. Perhaps this is why a moral lesson that could easily be preachy or cumbersome here comes off with a certain lightness, even a flash of cheek. Instead of deadening, or dour, each of the unblinking scenes that make up Walker is a meticulous but playful composition, shot digitally by Tsai himself. He uses reflective surfaces, works an array of angles and depths, and even—displaying his signature deadpan humor—sticks in Lee’s hands the comforts of the modern world: a soft bo lo bao bun and a white plastic bag.
In 2015, Tsai said that one of the things he loves about the Walker films is how little preparation they require: “Just a little makeup for Hsiao-kang [Lee’s nickname], and a red monk’s robe. We go to the location I have selected and begin to film. It’s like when a painter goes out to paint a still life. Have you ever heard of a painter planning or conceptualizing anything before going out to paint a still life? He paints what he finds and sees. Because the world is so full of wonders, one can never run out of subjects to paint.”
As Lee’s odyssey continues in Walker, those found wonders include the forlorn company of cleaners on the late shift and a fleet of sleeping buses; the tinkly tune of an ice-cream van; and an illuminated fish tank (perhaps an allusion to 2001’s What Time Is It There?). After flipping repeatedly between day and night, the film takes Lee to a gated dead-end where he pauses beneath a “No Entry” sign, and finally, he gets to eat his bun. For the first time, we get the pleasure of a close-up of Lee’s face, as he takes slow bites—serenaded by one of Tsai’s characteristically schmaltzy needle drops, a goofy seventies tune called “A Stream Divides the Land” by the Cantopop singer/actor Sam Hui—transforming the simple exercise into Chaplin-esque tragicomedy.
Walker was created as part of an omnibus film for the Hong Kong International Film Festival, Beautiful 2012, and sponsored by the Chinese video-hosting site Youku, where it was watched by millions. Much to Tsai’s amusement, many viewers left irate comments, generally along the lines of wishing bodily harm to his monk in order to make him react. Unperturbed, Tsai’s obsession—with Xuanzang, with Lee—continues unabated. The next films in the Walker series give us nothing if not “a strong sense of existence that we have never felt before,” as Tsai reorients the story to different cities, from a factory in western Taiwan (Sleepwalk, 2012) to the Malaysian-born filmmaker’s hometown of Kuching (Walking on Water, 2013).
Walker is downright zippy compared to the fifth film, 2014’s Marseilles-set Journey to the West; though double the running time, it has only fourteen shots compared to Walker’s twenty-one. The extended duration of the scenes of Lee walking the French port city (shot by cinematographer Antoine Héberlé) cleave open even deeper spaces for mind-emptying contemplation, including a magisterial twenty minutes as Lee descends a set of metro stairs.
As Tsai said in 2015, “I think I experienced the highest degree of artistic freedom when I was doing the Walker series, because it’s not about a story, not even about meanings. It’s painting. Of course there are meanings, if you really want to say them—everything has its own meaning. Otherwise, how can those classic paintings make sense?”
The films all teasingly toggle with the monk’s ontological status—is he a flesh and blood historical figure? A millennial disciple? A visitor from another realm? (As John Lennon tells another hard walker, Dewey Cox, “With meditation there’s no limit to what we can imagine.”) Another alternative: both Sleepwalk and Journey to the West suggest Lee’s walk may be but a dream. The latter film opens with an extreme close-up of actor Denis Lavant’s face in repose—his eyes flicker open, the twitch of breath is visible in his neck—before it cuts to Lee exiting his ascetic abode, as if he were answering Lavant’s summons, maybe even stepping out of his brain. (That we are all living in one of Lavant’s daydreams may be my favoorite pet theory yet.)
After the haywire shopping districts of Hong Kong, sunny Marseilles appears a fantastical space that could be another planet. A game of mirrors plays out under (over?) the Port Vieux Pavilion’s stainless-steel canopy, while a shot of a sparkling infinity pool makes you feel Lee could step off and freefall through the cosmos. What peace.
Throughout, Tsai allows us to unabashedly look at Lee, as so much of his cinema longs to do. This sense of longing is intensified in the exquisite seventh Walker film, No No Sleep (2015). The robes come off as queer desire comes to the fore in a Tokyo bathhouse, and our lonesome, dear monk finally gets some rest.