The sacred as politics
by Fábio Andrade
A man on a flight of stairs, with his head shaved bare, wearing the red garments of a monk. That is the first shot in Walker, a 25-minute short film directed by Tsai Ming-liang. At first, we have the impression that the man is going down the stairs, but the image is too fractional to give a complete sight of the action. His slow steps make one think the shooting speed could have been altered, but an open door in the background states the world keeps its regular pace. The eyes move deeper towards the image, looking for refuge in the motion out the door: a bus passes by the door; a man wearing a purple sweater crosses the street; a woman pushes a handcart towards the entrance of the building. The shot lasts enough time for our vision and mind to wander in the background, to the point one can no longer tell whether the monk is really going down or standing on the same step the whole time.
Walker is the first work of a larger project by Tsai Ming-liang, which includes two other short films (No Form and Diamond Sutra, which I still haven’t had the chance to see) and public performances with Lee Kang-sheng, the protagonist in all of his movies. The premise is quite simple and it fits within one sentence: wearing the same crimson outfit, the actor walks with extremely slow steps in a number of different locations. At each shot, the location changes, the surroundings change, but his ultra-slow steps remain. Commissioned by Youku, a Hong Kong television channel, Walker had more than 4 million views at the company’s website and, according to Tsai himself, and even larger number of complaints. “They said they found it unbearable, that Lee Kang-sheng was walking too slowly, that someone should push him, or hit him on the head to make him react”.
To those who are already familiar with the style of the Malayan director, this attention to duration and the underlining of the passage of time is nothing new. Tsai Ming-liang has always had an extremely privileged eye for composition, creating some of the most expressive shots of the last twenty or thirty years of cinema. These compositions are usually held still for as long as necessary, until the action has fully bloomed. After an entire career comprised of movies that revitalized narrative through a rigid tableux structure and a symbolist approach (of which 2005 A Wayward Cloud seems to be a final and most complete expression), Walker takes one step further in the process of depuration which have occupied his latest movies and found plenitude in 2009’s Visage, a movie in which the director almost completely let go off his narrative concerns, substituted by shots which carried all the necessary meaning in their own duration, making the concatenation between shots more like a game of fitting pieces than a linear experience. Every shot carried “the entire movie”; what one gets with the sequence of scenes is not a narrative understanding, but an accumulation of intensity.
Here, Tsai Ming-liang takes this process even further because, while Visage still relied on the variety of the skits (it was a movie about cinema, after all), Walker is almost entirely constituted (with the exception of two very specific moments, like the beautiful final shot) of the repetition of a same procedure. Lee Kang-sheng is like a collage piece, a (slightly) moving stamp the director places on/in the different locations where the movie is set. With every shot, one gets the same slow steps, the same feeling of disconnection with the surroundings – even though they are absolutely essential to the movie, especially for being the one thing that always keep changing – and the same reaction of the viewer to the surface of the image. What changes is that, with the flowing of time in the shots, we are dredged towards a different mental rhythm in relation to those images, as if the repetition of the procedure allowed an even deeper immersion and made the spectator see number of other movies which Walker also could rise from the depths.
A religious movie
Tsai Ming-liang has declared in the past that all his movies are in some way Buddhist mediations and Walker deals with that with even more clarity than his other works. Starting with the first shot: Lee Kang-sheng “descends” to the world from a higher place that shall remain unknown, inaccessible to the camera. From this moment on, the position of the director concerning the slow speed of the monk’s walk is clearly established: slowing down is an action of the sacred.
This position, however, is intensified in the following shots, when the Buddhist monk takes the city streets. The entire movie is based on accentuating contrasts, not only between Lee’s pace and the rest of the world, but also between the “purity” of his sacred gown and the locations, saturated with all sorts of information and stimulation. Downcast, with his head pending from his bent neck, the monk interacts with the city through his denial of looking. His clearest gesture of interaction is precisely in reaffirming the necessity of looking inwards.
Cinema, however, is an earthly matter – something that looks, after all. Tsai puts himself in the same position of the spectator: no shot in Walker will show the decency of waiting for the monk to cross the screen from end to end – which makes it a poignantly cruel movie with the perception of the viewer (the cut always comes before it is wanted).
Once the dispositif is set, both movie and spectator engage on the constant challenge of locating the protagonist in each shot. In the second shot of the movie, this game has the effect of a comedic gag (a genre that Tsai Ming-liang has always mastered): first we see the reflection of the monk on the window of the shop and then there is this long wait until his small steps lead him to the actual scene.
The entirety of Walker unfolds like a game of guessing and surprises, in which, once its system is decoded (and we don’t need more than two or three shots to realize the movie is not going to be anything different than what it already is), we feed our own expectation for the moment of the cut and are visually entertained by the degrees of variation between one shot and the next. On many occasions, a bus or a car pass between the camera and the character, covering the entire screen, and the spectator is immediately assaulted with the question of whether the monk will still be there after the vehicle has passed (and he always is).
From this collection of gags that take place both in the mise en scène and in the editing, the movie is built like a constant play between different scales, perspectives and dimensions. With the absence of any continuity, each new shot demands a certain time until the spectator has reorganized their perception and located – almost with the tip of their fingers – the one narrative thread (the monk) that leads the passage between one shot and the next. In a given moment, Tsai Ming-ling cuts from a frontal shot to a plongée that is so wide it almost turns the movie screen into a page of Where’s Waldo?
Some of Tsai Ming-liang better-known films nurture an intense relationship with the musical genre. In both The Hole (1998) and the aforementioned A Wayward Cloud, the characters’ imagination find possibilities of effectiveness in dance numbers which are marked by the physical (or emotional) interaction that lacks and stands as the main obstacle for characters through the rest of both movies.
In a number of ways, Walker is the director’s most radical experience within the genre. In truth, it is a lot closer to contemporary dance than the burlesque stylization of his previous movies. Still, even though there is no music, nor any pre-established interaction – better yet: precisely because there is no music, nor any pre-established interaction – this is a movie in which rhythm and the precision of the choreography play an absolutely vital role.
When a Sam Hui song comes through with the final shot, accompanying one of the most beautiful bites on a sandwich ever filmed, it is clear that it comes in continuity with everything we’ve seen up until that point, not as a breaking point. In Walker, the musical is no longer a mere sublimation of daily life in another plan of existence, but an integral part of the rhythm of life itself (in the movie).
A performance documentary
One of the essential ingredients of the movie is that every outdoor scene is shot like a documentary. Lee Kang-sheng is inserted in those scenes like a foreign body, and that establishes a whole spontaneous theater of interactions, disregards and reactions to his presence – like the passersby on Glauber Rocha’s The Age of the Earth (1980) or the relationship between Paulo César Peréio and the “spontaneous characters” of Iracema (1975), by Jorge Bodanzky and Orlando Senna.
Walker is also a documentary of this performatic installation unleashed on an ordinary day of an ordinary city as well as an inventory of the many ways people behave before it (an ethnographic experiment, of course). This interaction between the wildest reality and the deeply controlled artificiality becomes even more powerful with the constant use of location sound. The result is a spontaneous, although just as strict, choreography around the body of Lee Kang-sheng, as if every piece of TV journalism held the potential of José Luis Guerín In the City of Sylvia (2007).
A political movie
Despite being a movie about the sacred, this descent (from wherever that is) to the streets is also fruit of the will to establish some kind of connection with the most mundane aspects of life: an ice cream truck, a fast food restaurant, a tram stop surrounded by publicity ads, a row of piles of paper waiting to be recycled. The movie is the filament that allows the connection between the sacred and the mundane, the living and the dead, the stillness and the motion, those who know (it is a film) and those who don’t.
Still, in the performance-documentary dimension of the movie lies a chance to intervene in the city life, in the hurried daily grind that Walker calmly tries to slow down (but not stop, as one can see in the title of the movie), without having to resort to the selective contemplation of the museum. In a remarkable scene that happens at the end of the first half of the movie, Lee Kang-sheng walks towards the camera in an extremely busy street, covered with signs and lights that blink in every direction. Little by little, a few groups of passersby gather in both sides of the closed street and stop to watch the performance. In that brief interim, the politics of the sacred act on the mundane world and Tsai Ming-liang reaffirms the political side of the artistic fruition: while they watch the slow steps of Lee Kang-sheng, all those standing passersby learn, without even noticing, how to walk at an even slower pace than the monk himself.
* Originally published in December 2013. Translation by Fábio Andrade.