Contributed by Dewi Fitzpatrick
Journey to the West (2016)
A documentary by Jill Coulon
We have all seen them: a big group of Asian tourists trying to stay as close to their flag-brandishing-command-yelling tour guide as possible. Their faces are often confused or fatigued, with a glimpse of awe and an amused sense of interest. Filmed in 2016, Journey to the West follows a group of Chinese tourists on their first ever visit to Europe. The modus operandi is simple: to see as many countries as possible in 10 days. The group spends the bulk of the journey shuttling between sights, with three constants accompanying them: a lively tour guide, a stoic bus driver, and of course the tour bus.
Six countries in 10 days? Seven hour bus rides between sights? An average of one hour to spend per sight? One might ask, what kind of a holiday is that. For many tourists from China, a trip like this will be one that they have worked hard and long for. Given the limited number of holidays the average Chinese person can take in one year, coupled with an average middle-class income, these 10 days are a significant milestone for many. The film contextualizes touring trips and not only explains the increasing phenomena but also offers us a perspective on what the tourists themselves actually feel and experience. Fatigue aside, the tourists are highly pragmatic people who want to get as much as possible out of their hard earned money.
The day begins early every day, with a quick breakfast before everyone piles onto the bus. Their lively tour guide, equipped with his microphone, cheerfully booms a rundown of the schedule with some fun facts about their destination. At some points along the journey, he randomly picks up his microphone and offers an interjection or an explanation on why something is the way it is. He draws parallels to life in China to aide him in his explanations. This play of mirroring and contrast is a common thread which runs throughout the film and directs the thought processes of many of the individual tourists.
What seems to strike the tourists the most, is the stark contrast in their view of life and that of the “people here”. Sitting in a café on the square during a rare moment of doing nothing, one tourist remarks “Everyone here is too relaxed. It is quite a nice lifestyle, but being idle is not for me.” Another tourist takes his young sons on the metro in Paris to see the Centre Pompidou. They seat themselves on some public steps, beaming at the idea of participating in idleness amongst other idlers. Most amusingly, a group of men venture into a local supermarket and spend a significantly long time observing how different cucumbers “here” look, and whether or not to buy one to show the rest. This leads to a discussion with a shop assistant who tries to tell them that it is cheaper to buy two. “But I don’t need two” replies one man in Mandarin. The woman smiles and walks away. The most striking aspect of the film, however, is the attitude of these tourists. While many Westerners may be annoyed with the ‘otherness’ of these Asian tourists, the tourists themselves treat the holiday like an amusing trip to the zoo. They just want to see what everything is like, to ascertain if the West is as great as the stories say, and then go home. There is no longing to be like “these people” or to eventually live “here” one day. Like how one would laugh at baboons in the zoo, or respectfully watch a tiger pacing, these tourists are there to see Europe firsthand, form an opinion on it, and take as many pictures as possible.
The film successfully makes its audience forget that it is a film. Instead, its long and steady angle shots draw you into the tour and show you exactly what the tourists are experiencing. With the help of comical upbeat music and an assemblage of comedic reliefs (eating instant noodles in the hotel room, selfie sticks and of course jump-shot photos anywhere and everywhere), the journey is a happy one and everyone seems satisfied. The consensus: the West is not that much better than China after all. The subject matter has a strong screen presence and the ability to carry and capture its audience for the whole duration. Just as quickly as it drew you in, the film expels you with new opinions on Asian tour groups. One is left with some empathy and a little more understanding that this rushed way of travel may be the only way these tourists can see foreign countries. Most importantly, this film has provoked its audience to reflect on the different perspectives one should consider about human behavior.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Dewi Fitzpatrick completed her Bachelor of Arts degree from the National University of Singapore, majoring in History. By sheer accident, Dewi stumbled into the film scene through her former role as the programmer of the German Film Festival in Singapore, and grew to love the world of stories in everything from arthouse and blockbuster to talkies and documentary. Dewi is currently a Research Analyst in the corporate sector.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.