Abiding Nowhere: a beautiful addition to Tsai Ming-liang’s Walker film series

Malaysian director Tsai Ming-liang follows a red-robed monk on a meditative journey through Washington D.C. for his tenth – and perhaps final – ‘Walker’ film.

27 February 2024

By Nick James

Lee Kang-sheng in Abiding Nowhere (2024)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival

Washington D. C. is the locale for the tenth and (ostensibly) final film of Tsai Ming-liang’s obsessive ‘Walker’ series, which has run since 2012 saw four shorts made under the rubric in the same year, Walker (shot in Hong Kong), No Form, Sleepwalk and Diamond Sutra (all shot in Taiwan) set in chain an international project that has seen Tsai and his physical muse Lee Kang-sheng shoot in Marseilles, Tokyo, Paris and his home city of Kuala Lumpur.

In Abiding Nowhere – part-financed by and featuring the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art – our regular buddhist tourist, Lee Kang-sheng, is to be found, as usual, barefoot and draped in crimson robes, walking with painful exactitude at sloth speed through some of the US capital’s more vividly imagistic spots: wooded parkland, inside Union Station, alongside the ornamental pool in front of the Washington monument and among the exhibits of the Museum itself. When outdoors, Abiding Nowhere is a particularly sunny entry in the series, taking place over two days with Kang-sheng, hands held in the Surya Mudra (sun gesture – third finger and thumb held together) acting almost like the gnomon of a sundial, each camera angle chosen as if to emphasise the time of day by the way the light falls on him.

As counterpoint to the familiarity of these shots for aficionados of Tsai’s other ‘Walking’ films, we occasionally see a young man (Anong Houngheuangsy) wandering through an expressionistically painted theatre building, or carefully cooking a noodle dish, the need for sustenance being a regular feature in the series ever since the monk’s journey through Hong Kong in Walker (2012) concluded with him eating the pineapple bun he’d been carrying in a white plastic bag and the whole of Diamond Sutra (2012) was timed to last as long as a rice cooker took to complete its task. The boy here might be following the monk or preceding him on his progress, who can say? The illogic of immediate creation is paramount to the whole project.

Lee Kang-sheng in Abiding Nowhere (2024)

One distinctive aspect of Abiding Nowhere is that the director apparently went out and did sketches before shooting, “like an old painter”, its position as the last last in the series perhaps demanding greater certainty. Tsai approaches these films primarily as an aesthetic experience, designed to recreate the beauty he experienced when he first watched Kang-sheng portray the seventh-century Tang Dynasty monk Chen Xuanzang by walking in the now established manner across a stage in Tsai’s 2011 Taiwan National Theatre production Only You. 

Having Kang-sheng do his walks through busy urban environments makes the necessary vivid contrast of lifestyles between Xuanzang’s and our own, yet here the environment is more bucolic than the perambulations through Hong Kong and Tokyo suggesting our monk has achieved a slightly greater distance from the hubbub of city life. Of course in these films we only ever see tiny fragments of the walks and cannot possibly conceive watching a complete journey to match the 17 years it’s said Xuanzang took to walk from China to India. Transitions from image to image give a whole new literal meaning to the jump cut.

The way that Abiding Nowhere makes you think about time and distance feeds into the usual positioning of Tsai’s work under the slow cinema banner but for me the tag that works best is ‘meditative performance’. Each of the ten films have been shown in galleries and film theatres, provoking the tedious argument as to which they better suit – not a debate that would trouble a buddhist – but the comfort and quiet of the cinema does help you lose yourself in them. 

The title of this final edition comes from a phrase of the Diamond Sutra which happens to be carved on the wall of Taiwan’s Nung Chang monastery: “Abiding nowhere, gives rise to mind”. I can’t claim to have felt more cerebral while watching it, nor did I find much evidence of Tsai’s humour, none of the interminable slapstick of Denis Lavant aping Kang-sheng’s progress through Marseilles in Journey to the West. What I found most beautiful were the shots inside the Museum, where the red-robed monk tortoises past statues of headless buddhas and the like that seemed burnished with a pinkish gold aura. Pleasures found in the Walker series are perhaps always solitary and unshared.

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