The premise of Xi You-a Buddhist Monk walking through the streets of Marseilles-is simple, but the feeling it leaves you with profoundly intense.
Director: Ming-liang Tsai. 56 min
Xi You, or ‘Journey to the West’, which just premiered at the Berlinale is a short film that follows a Buddhist Monk through the streets of Marseilles as he walks uncommonly slowly, taking part in what we assume must be some kind of pilgrimage. People point, people stare, people laugh at the monk, but no-one distracts him from his task. He simply looks down steadfastly at his feet, hands awkwardly locked in place in front of him, and continues to walk on.
Interestingly, the opening scene does not include the monk but the well-worn face of a different man, silently crying. His tears leak from his tired looking eyes, across the bridge of his nose and into his own shadow. In other scenes he appears drained of life, his face fusing into the rocks in the background; beaten yet sculpturally prominent. We don’t know who the man is, nor the reason for his pain, but we are nonetheless anxious to see what he does. This unidentified man, played by Denis Lavant, appears again as a member of the public, in nondescript clothes, focussed intently on mimicing the exact movements of the monk. Relaxed men sit outside sipping espresso, talking amongst themselves until they clock the monk, and then his follower. Smiles appear on their faces, as they subtly point out both Pied Piper and his rat. We as the viewer however read the two as a master and his disciple- the monk is giving the man some kind of salvation.
The camera sits patiently, often with the monk out of frame- we are made to sit and watch for a minute each time, anticipating him to reveal himself within the frame, his shaven head or his bright red robes inching slowly beyond a window-sill, a mirrored surface, or past motionless shop mannequins. The series of long-takes allow us to immerse ourselves in the daily noises and motions of the French streets that fill our peripheral vision rather than our gaze being dictated by reverse-shots and camera movements. We can freely roam the image as we please. With each cut our gaze is freshly awakened, ready to begin our search again with new sounds from a new street.
Xi You isn’t your normal documentary, it’s more of an observational mantra. The repetition of the monk’s actions act like a helix rather than a perfect loop. With every revolution, with every scene, our awareness grows as we witness the same actions within a new street. We grow more and more fond of the monk as the film continues, as we acclimatise ourselves to his slow pace amongst the ever-busy streets. We are never shown the beginning or an end of the monk’s journey, and at 56 minutes in length, I was far from ready to leave him when the film was over.