Semi-retired filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang continues to impress with his Walker series, of which the seventh instalment has popped up on YouTube. It is astonishing that even though these short films are, I assume, all supposed to be about the red-robed Lee Kang-sheng, there are nevertheless unique elements in each of the shorts. The Walker series is not only about a monk, at times invisible in masses of people, who walks from A to B. In fact, I believe that Tsai is changing his approach ever so slightly in order to avoid boredom on the part of the viewer. Then again, if you click on the YouTube video you can find all the comments underneath. There’s so far only one in English, and this one says “WTF”. I don’t think I need to say more 🙂
What makes No No Sleep different from the previous Walker instalments? First of all, Tsai changes the locations. The first instalment, the original Walker, was set in busy Hong Kong. He then switched to Marseille, and now we’re in Tokyo. Tokyo, for me the embodiment of speed, and therefore an apparent must for a Walker film. But this would be too straightforward. Tsai’s new short is set late in the evening. Tokyo is everything but busy. It is a comparatively quiet place, which goes well with the monk’s speed, or slowness, however you want to define it (“pace” is perhaps the best word!). Whereas in Journey to the West, it was a game for the viewer to find the red-robed slow-walking monk in superbly constructed frames, No No Sleep consists of frames without the monk. This is, for someone who is used to the previous instalments, confusing. I spent quite some time looking for the monk because I expected him to be there; somewhere, wherever, hidden in good old Tsai Ming-liang style.
But no, not all frames show the monk. Tsai plays with our expectations. He makes his Walker series interesting by using small elements as game changers, as is the case with the Find-The-Monk game. Another interesting aspect at the beginning of No No Sleep is the fact that a narrative, or at least a progression of whatever you may call it, is constructed through editing. This is quite remarkable in that this is hardly ever the case in Tsai’s films, or in Slow Cinema in general. One take shows one event. No No Sleep moves away from this. The monk’s endless walk (across a bridge?) is shown in a strikingly traditional manner: extreme long shot, medium shot, reverse shot. A progression is intimated through the use of different shot distances over the course of perhaps seven minutes. This felt a bit like a shock at first. A sudden cut to a medium shot in order to show the same thing, only from a different distance, was not what I was used to. But again, these are the elements which keep the Walker series interesting.
There is one scene, which I absolutely loved. It blew my mind even though it was dead simple. There was no monk to be seen, although he could have been in the train which comes to a stop in front of us. It feels as if we’re on a platform at a train station. A train is moving into the station. But for some reason we suddenly start to move. This mind-boggling experience, especially visually, prevents you for a few seconds to realise that the camera is set on a tripod in another train, which sets off and takes you through Tokyo at night. This extensive scene is beautiful, mind boggling and simply superb. It completely disrupts the idea of slowness, but this doesn’t make it less interesting for me, the viewer. It was one of the most wonderful scenes I have seen in a film for a long time, and I thought that this scene alone would be perfect for a gallery. I could have been on this train for an hour or two.
Another surprise is that Tsai starts to infuse his Buddhist monk walks with the sexual undertones we know from his feature films. I always thought that Tsai would shy away from this, but he proved me wrong. Again, this is lovely because No No Sleep upset my expectations and I was reminded that I should simply not expect anything when I watch a Tsai film, or any slow film for that matter. Just let the film happen to me.