Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang is, I think, one of the world’s most interesting filmmakers. It is not simply that he produces interesting and deepful artful narrative features including Rebels of a Neon God and Goodbye, Dragon Inn. He also makes a broad range of experimental and abstract works that stretch the potential of the screen format. The Deserted (2017) toyed with the use of VR in creating an immersive and haunted environment. His documentary Your Face (2018) stretched long takes of people’s faces to such extremes as to become somehow revelatory.
One of his more famous experiments came as a segment in the Beautiful 2012 multi-director festival feature. “Walker” follows a monk (regular Tsai collaborator Lee Kang-sheng) as he walks through Hong Kong, a plastic bag in one hand and a Chinese bun in the other. The film comprises a series of long takes, shot on digital video, with the monk slowly walking through them.
Lee’s monk does not simply walk slowly: his pace stretches out to interminable lengths. In the film’s opening shot, which takes several minutes, we can see pedestrians passing back and forth outside of a worn staircase and doorway. Over all that time, and so many passersby, the monk literally takes three steps. The entire film takes 27 minutes, and consists of only 21 shots.
At first, the film feels like being forced to watch with a heavy weight tied to one ankle. Then, as its peculiar rhythm settles in, it becomes possible to simply go along for the ride. Each location sinks in, revealing all matter of minor details: billboards advertising consumer goods, various people going about in a rush, and passing buses on the street. By slowing the speed of his protagonist, Tsai emphasises the extraordinary urgency of the real world. While the viewer may resist the slower pace of the monk, eventually they must sink into that rhythm – it is at that point that the overriding serenity of Tsai’s work can be achieved.
Tsai has directed several follow-ups to Walker, all following an identical premise and process. It is all a far cry from the typical narrative cinema reviewed on this platform, but is a fascinating experiment nonetheless. Its simplicity belies its power.