Tag Archives: Tsai Ming-Liang

Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights on Blu-ray / Journey to the West at Chicago Filmmakers


Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights, my favorite film (or should that be “films?”) of the year so far, is now out on Blu-ray via Kino/Lorber. The review I wrote for Time Out Chicago at the time of its local premiere was severely truncated. Here’s the full version:

Arabian Nights, a new series of three two-hour movies by Portuguese critic-turned-director Miguel Gomes (Tabu), kicks off this Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and it will undoubtedly go down as one of the major cinematic events in Chicago this year. Subtitled The Restless One, The Desolate One and The Enchanted One, this ambitious political trilogy borrows the structure of the ancient collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian folktales from which the series gets its title but is set in the present day. The result is an expansive portrait of modern-day Portugal that shows how the austerity measures enacted by the current government have negatively impacted society. Gomes’ progressive/liberal point-of-view is clear but never didactic; his chief interest would appear to be in creating set pieces of intense cinematic poetry (an aim in which he’s aided immeasurably by Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s regular cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom).

Each of the three films are at times disturbing, other times hilarious, and occasionally venture into full-blown surrealism. The delightful vignettes, many of which feature animals, include: the story of Dixie, an adorable dog who passes from one owner to another in a housing project; a murderer who becomes a folk hero as he successfully evades police; unemployed men preparing for a polar-bear swim; the denizens of a working-class neighborhood training their pet finches for a singing competition; a beached whale that explodes; and a rooster that’s put on trial for making too much noise. The extended trial sequence at the center of the second volume (The Desolate One) has come in for criticism for being too long-winded but I think it’s the heart and soul of the entire enterprise – containing stories within stories, combining documentary technique with stylized theatricality, and underlining the theme of the “interconnectedness” of all things. Personally, I could have watched these shaggy-dog stories spiral onward indefinitely.



I have a review of Tsai Ming-Liang’s great JOURNEY TO THE WEST in this week’s Cine-File. It receives its Chicago premiere at Chicago Filmmakers tonight and has an encore screening at Columbia College on Tuesday. Here’s my review in its entirety:

Tsai Ming-Liang’s JOURNEY TO THE WEST (Contemporary Taiwanese)
Chicago Filmmakers (5243 N. Clark St.) – Saturday, 8pm; Repeats at Columbia College (Hokin Hall, 623 S. Wabash Ave.) on Tuesday at 6:30pm

JOURNEY TO THE WEST (2014), the second and most recent installment in director Tsai Ming-Liang’s ongoing “Walker” series, receives its belated local premiere at Chicago Filmmakers this weekend thanks to the enterprising efforts of Beguiled Cinema (the programming endeavor of Cine-File critics Ben and Kat Sachs). This fascinating series, which began with 2012’s WALKER, was inspired by the life of Xuanzang, a 7th-century Buddhist monk who became famous for making a 17-year pilgrimage from China to India by foot. Dispensing with narrative and dialogue altogether, the aptly titled JOURNEY TO THE WEST consists of just a few shots, done in Tsai’s customary long-take style, of a red-robed monk (Lee Kang-Sheng) walking about as slow as humanly possible around densely populated areas of contemporary Marseilles, France. Eventually, he is joined by a man in Western clothing (Denis Lavant) who walks behind him at the same snail’s pace. Tsai has worked in France before–most notably in 2001’s WHAT TIME IS IT THERE?–but the pairing here of his inevitable leading man Lee with Leos Carax’s favorite leading man Lavant was a genuine masterstroke; they are arguably the two best physical actors working today, known for the kind of expressive body language reminiscent of silent-film acting rather than the traditional facial/vocal emoting that has been popular in cinema since the early sound era. Different viewers will likely take away different things from this experiment; I personally see it as a complex statement about how ancient Eastern religions seem “out of step” with the fast pace of modern Western life, and how there are elements of contemporary Western civilization that, for this very reason, feel irresistibly drawn towards Eastern philosophy. Regardless of how one interprets it, what’s not in dispute is the film’s extreme formal beauty (the shot of the monk, surrounded by what looks like a red halo created by his robe, walking down a flight of subway stairs is astonishing), as well as its unexpected, ineffable sense of humor. (2014, 56 min, Blu-ray Projection) MGS

More info at http://www.chicagofilmmakers.org.

Odds and Ends: Journey to the West and The Men of Dodge City

Here are capsule reviews of two films currently streaming online for free that I think are well worth your time.

Journey to the West (Tsai Ming-liang, France/Taiwan, 2014) – Streaming / Rating: 8.6


I don’t have time to write a proper full review but I wanted to alert my readers ASAP to the fact that the latest film from Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang, Journey to the West, which just premiered to much fanfare at the Berlin International Film Festival, is streaming for free for one week at The Seventh Art, a terrific, independently produced “video magazine” based in Canada. Tsai’s 53-minute movie, starring two of the world’s best physical actors (Taiwan’s Lee Kang-sheng and France’s Denis Lavant) comes just one year after his formidable Stray Dogs also bowed in Berlin, at which time Tsai spoke of retiring. Cinephiles should be thankful that he didn’t: not only is Journey to the West a great mini-movie, it proves to be yet another logical step in the evolution of Tsai’s singular brand of filmmaking. A friend of mine complained that Stray Dogs was an unsatisfying hybrid between a narrative film and a museum installation piece; I wonder how he will feel about this one, which dispenses with narrative and dialogue altogether. The aptly titled Journey to the West consists of almost nothing but a few shots, done in Tsai’s customary long-take style, of a red-robed monk (Lee) walking almost as slow as humanly possible around densely populated areas of Marseilles, France. Eventually, he is joined by a man in Western clothing (Lavant) who walks behind him at the same snail’s pace. Different viewers will likely take different things away from this experiment; I personally saw it as a complex statement about how ancient Eastern religions seem “out of step” with the fast pace of modern Western life and how there are elements of contemporary Western civilization that, for this very reason, feel irresistibly drawn towards Eastern philosophy. Regardless of how you interpret it, what’s not in dispute is the film’s extreme formal beauty (the shot of the monk, surrounded by what looks like a red halo created by his robe, walking down a flight of subway stairs is astonishing), as well as its unexpected, ineffable sense of humor.

You can watch Journey to the West in its entirety at The Seventh Art here:


The Men of Dodge City (Nandan Rao, USA, 2012) – Streaming / Rating: 7.0


The title The Men of Dodge City may evoke images of the Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott westerns of the 1950s but you would be hard pressed to find a film as uniquely contemporary — and urban — as this debut feature by director/cinematographer Nandan Rao. The title characters are three 20-something friends, J., Ben and Zach (each of whom is named, as is often the case with micro-budget indies, for the actors who portray them — Jesse Rudoy, Ben Rickles and Zach Weintraub), who purchase an abandoned church in an economically depressed area of Detroit. With the help of a government grant, they begin renovating the space with the vague goal of turning it into an arts center. In a series of near-plotless scenes that feel semi-improvised (no writers are credited), the characters work, play, and debate the morality of their actions: are they selfish interlopers? Should the arts center “give back” to the surrounding community? Which one of them should date Sophia (Sophia Takal)?

Rao has cited Lucrecia Martel as a stylistic influence and the first lady of Argentinian cinema’s DNA is all over this — from the lack of traditional narrative exposition (scenes typically begin with characters in mid-conversation, plunging viewers into chaos and often forcing us to puzzle out the meaning in hindsight) to a cinematographic style that favors the use of shallow focus and long takes. If Rao is not yet anywhere near Martel’s level of formal mastery (his sound design is primitive by comparison and some of the longer takes devolve into longueurs), this is still an impressive and uncommonly assured first film. I especially appreciate the absence of exterior establishing shots, which heightens Rao’s poetic feel for the interior design of his locations and “makes strange” places that might seem familiar and banal in the hands of a lesser director: scenes set in the church and a high-rise hotel, in particular, feel almost like something out of science-fiction and, to paraphrase something Luis Bunuel once said about Buster Keaton’s College, possess the cool beauty of a bathroom.

You can watch The Men of Dodge City at Kentucker Audley’s invaluable site, Nobudge.com (where this review originally appeared last year), below:


You should also read about Audley’s hilarious “Stop Making Indie Films” movement/publicity stunt and consider signing his pledge:


49th Chicago International Film Festival Preview, Pt. 1


The Chicago International Film Festival has returned for a 49th edition that features a typically expansive and eclectic list of movies from around the world — 180 films from 60 different countries to be precise. While this includes some (but not all) of the important films by big name directors that made splashes earlier this year at Berlin (Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtain), Cannes (Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color) and Venice (Tsai Ming-Liang’s Stray Dogs), a lot of the chief pleasures to be found at CIFF come from seeking out titles more off the beaten path. CIFF will never be able to compete with New York, Telluride or Toronto, all of which immediately precede us on the fall festival circuit, but the other side of the coin is that we’re more likely to get gems by lesser-known auteurs that fly under the radar of those festivals. In this regard, I was particularly impressed by the Taiwanese thriller Soul, a Lynchian mind-bender by one Chung Mong-Hong featuring a great role for the legendary martial artist Jimmy Wang-Yu (The One Armed Swordsman) that I will be reviewing next week. In the meantime, I am offering four picks of some of my “best bets” for the festival’s first week below. The Chicago International Film Festival kicks off this Thursday night with a screening of James Gray’s The Immigrant (the fest’s most impressive opening night in many years) and continues through Thursday, October 24. The complete schedule can be found online here: http://www.chicagofilmfestival.com

Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-Liang, Taiwan)
Rating: 9.1


If Tsai Ming-Liang has indeed retired after making Stray Dogs, his 11th feature, as he’s indicated in interviews, he will have gone out on a high note. This beautiful film finds the great Taiwanese director training his patient camera eye on a homeless man (the inevitable Lee Kang-Sheng) who struggles to provide for his two young children in contemporary Taipei. There are extended wordless sequences of Lee’s unnamed character “working” by standing in traffic and holding an advertising placard — and thus functioning as a human billboard — as well as washing his children in a grocery store bathroom; these shots are almost startling in their clear-eyed compassion and remind us that, for all of the experimenting he does with form, Tsai has always grounded his movies in the traditional values of character and story. The best scene occurs about half-way through: a long take of the protagonist smothering a head of lettuce with a pillow (before doing other interesting things to it, including voraciously biting into it and cradling it in his arms and sobbing over it), a sad, funny, crazy moment far more emotionally moving than the shrewdly melodramatic climax of Michael Haneke’s Amour. Then there is the amazing penultimate shot, a close-up of two faces staring at a mural that ticks well past the 10-minute mark, with one of the characters effortlessly shedding a few tears halfway through, which also provides a nice bookend to the famous final shot of Tsai’s breakthrough Vive L’amour (1994). Without taking anything away from its culturally specific qualities, I think this has more to say about the lives of ordinary Americans today than most movies coming out of the United States. Stray Dogs screens Friday, October 11th and Sunday, October 13th.

Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, France)
Rating: 7.1


Tunisian-born director Abdellatif Kechiche is considered one of France’s greatest working filmmakers. His 2007 feature The Secret of the Grain was the only French movie to make the Cahiers du Cinema critics’ poll of the ten best films of the 2000s. I could rattle off at least a dozen other French titles from that decade that I prefer; so I went to see Blue is the Warmest Color — the zeitgeist-capturing lesbian love story that won the Palme d’Or in May just as the marriage-equality debate in France was reaching a fever pitch — as a Kechiche skeptic, and I emerged feeling pretty much the exact same way. Blue certainly has its moments. Kechiche seems to have a singular talent for creating indelible moments: his modus operandi as a director is to search for some kind of ineffable emotional truth during the shooting of a scene, which more often than not sees him sticking a handheld camera into the faces of his actors while apparently making them do countless takes and occasionally yelling directions from off-screen. The result is a series of scenes that, taken individually, have a pungent Cassavetes-like emotional rawness, although, unfortunately, Kechiche is incapable of stringing these moments together into anything resembling a satisfying whole. Blue is ultimately worth seeing, especially for the brave and highly emotive performances of Adele Exarchopolous and Lea Seydoux (both of whom have stated they will never work for the director again); and the film’s instantly notorious 10-minute sex scene, which is also arguably its best scene — not just for its eroticism but because it’s the only one without an over-reliance on close-ups. Expectations, however, should be adjusted: I’m not saying the emperor has no clothes, just that he’s more shabbily attired than many are giving him credit for. Blue is the Warmest Color is playing as a gala presentation on Saturday, October 12th.

The Girls on Liberty Street (John Rangel, USA)
Rating: 7.2


This well-crafted Chicago-shot indie follows Brianna (Brianna Zepeda), an 18-year old Hispanic girl who recently graduated from high school, as she attempts to tie up the loose ends of her life in the final days before leaving to serve in the Armed Forces. In a series of quiet, low-key encounters, she bids farewell to those closest to her, including family members, friends and a tempestuous ex-boyfriend. The extreme realism of the dialogue and performances impresses and, at barely an hour long, this certainly doesn’t overstay its welcome. But writer/director John Rangel and his cast of non-professional actors are also so intent on de-dramatizing their basic conceit that the end result occasionally feels both opaque and lightweight — one wonders if the muted quality of the drama resulted from the performers not being up to the challenge of mining deeper emotional terrain. Still, Chicagoans interested in locally shot microbudget cinema should check it out: film students, in particular, will learn a lot more by watching this than anything being produced in Hollywood. The Girls on Liberty Street screens Saturday, October 12th, Monday, October 14th and Tuesday, October 15th. John Rangel will be in attendance for all screenings.

Pieces of Me (Nolwenn Lemesle, France)
Rating: 7.0


For those not wanting to kick out the extra cash for the pricier “gala presentation” of Blue is the Warmest Color (or if you missed the chance due to its inevitably being sold out), this affecting 2012 drama also offers a chance to check out the impressive acting chops of Adele Exarchopolous. In Pieces of Me, the Gallic-Greek thesp plays Erell, a girl living in a dead-end small town who must contend with a terminally ill mother, an absent-minded father, and an older sister who abandoned the family years earlier but unceremoniously returns home 6-months pregnant. There is also plenty of humor, and the provincial milieu — best exemplified by Erell’s coterie of knucklehead male friends — is nicely drawn; this makes palpable Erell’s desire to transcend the boredom of her daily routine, which, one assumes, must be rooted in the biography of first-time writer/director Nolwenn Lemesle. Although there are rookie mistakes on display as well (making Erell an amateur filmmaker and including an overuse of faux-documentary segments), the French tend to excel at naturalistic dramas with strong regional flavors and this is, on the whole, certainly no exception. Pieces of Me screens Thursday, October 17th, Sunday, October 20th and Tuesday, October 22nd.

To be continued . . .

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