Taking its title from the legendary 16th century Chinese novel, which chronicled the travels of idealistic Buddhist monk Xuanzang around the regions of Central Asia and India, Jill Coulon’s documentary focuses on the modern pilgrimage of China’s middle class to Europe that has been made possible by the rapidly growing economy of the PRC and simplified visa procedures. As this documentary shows, however, the potential for Chinese tourists to experience the modern day equivalent of the intrepid monk’s encounters is curtailed by tight scheduling which does not allow for the kind of digressions that give rise to genuine cultural interaction.
Embedded with a tour group that is taking in six countries in just ten days, Coulon has intimate access to the impressions that these enthusiastic yet frequently bemused visitors form of Europe over the course of their whirlwind trip. Some already have ideas about the West from what they have seen and read online, with the tour only serving as a slim extension of their online education since they largely witness these countries through the window of the tour bus, unable to get a tangible sense of place. As their affable tour guide Huo explains on departure, the group will spend four to five hours per day in transit with limited time at places of interest; although in Europe, they spend much of the day in a microcosm of their own society, unable to completely lose themselves in the unfamiliar landscape as someone is always on hand to make a comparison their homeland. “People shouldn’t live in valleys, when there’s a flood it destroys everything”, comments an elderly passenger as the bus travels through some ruggedly gorgeous countryside.
Once at the tour’s various destinations, there’s a comical aspect to the sight-seeing as the tourists often have a mere fifteen minutes to spend at places which require a full afternoon for proper appreciation. When in Rome, members of the group dash around the streets of the city’s resplendent Old Town, snatching photograph opportunities where possible, then receive the potted history of the Trevi Fountain from their guide before heading back to the bus for a quick drive- through of the Piazza Venezia. Coulon cuts these bursts of touristic activity together in a lightly satirical manner, but some members of the group are already in on the joke, making humorous asides about how they hardly have time to really survey anything prompting group conversations about cultural differences between China’s goal-orientated society and the seemingly lackadaisical approach to life favoured by France or Italy. One tourist makes a distinction between China living for the future whereas Europe is able to live in the present as its society is older and therefore more developed – “People here aren’t in a hurry, it’s not as tiring”.
Some viewers may feel the documentary is lacking sufficient background detail on its participants, who are all presumably middle-class citizens making the most of their limited annual leave or seeing more the world now they have retired. None of the tourists are identified by name or interviewed separately about their backgrounds or reasons for visiting Europe, but Coulon still finds notable differences in attitude and economic standing within this emblematic approach to subtly challenge the stereotype of consumerist Chinese tourists that is frequently perpetuated by the media. Huo points out that signs that used to warn Chinese tourists against bad behaviour, such as making noise or spitting, have been replaced by notices that they can use their national credit cards to make purchases, but while some are keen to swipe their plastic at the ostentatious department store Galeries Lafayette or Louis Vuitton, others take the opportunity to get away from the throng and go to quieter spots from which they can savour a nice view or sip coffee at an outdoor café.
If the documentary has a central character, then it is Huo, who has mastered the art of filling in the ‘dead time’ between stops. He regales the group with amusing, finely tuned stories about his time as a corporate guide in the Netherlands where clients took an interest in “capitalist smut” and drank expensive whiskey, while peppering occasionally pepping his anecdoates with surprising political commentary. The economic poles of “rich” and “poor” are bandied around throughout the documentary, often as generalisations or stereotypes, but the savvy Huo seems aware that most modern Chinese professionals have worked their way to the middle, much like their European counterparts.
A group photograph is traditionally part of a Chinese tour, and this one ends with the shot being taken at the Eifel Tower. There’s a sense of achievement in the trip being completed, that the indomitable Chinese spirit has somehow willed these travelers through space in near-record time, as if in competition with other parties, but it’s an odyssey that peaks at the point of near-discovery. Judiciously paced at just under one hour, this particular journey to the West is a revealing snapshot of a snapshot which succinctly illustrates how two economically intertwined cultures are still getting acquainted with one another.
Journey to the West is available as part of the 2017 streaming collection from Icarus Films.