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The Sojourn Review: Elusive Documentary

Mist on the mountains in the film The Sojourn

With its unconventional use of documentary techniques, Tiffany Sia’s The Sojourn is an elusive film, but does it work?

Director: Tiffany Sia
Genre: Documentary
Run Time: 32′
Screening Date: April 27, 2024
Where to watch: at the Open City Documentary Festival in April

Directed and written by Tiffany Sia, The Sojourn is a short film in Mandarin, with some occasional English subtitles. The documentary had its theatrical world premiere at the Doc Fortnight at the Museum of Modern Art earlier this year. Just this week, the film was also shown at the Open City Documentary Festival in London.

The premise of The Sojourn is fascinating, as the documentary aims to reflect on the very filmmaking process itself, but would the film be able to deliver on it? With an unconventional product such as this one, you can never be entirely sure.

Set in Taiwan, The Sojourn allows the audience to visit scenic locations shot by King Hu, imagining a restless landscape film in the country. The film experiments with many different genres as an interesting mixture of on-location shooting, road movie moments, and martial arts epic sequences. As the film goes on, Tiffany Sia meets Shih Chu, who played the protagonist in Hu’s Dragon Inn, as the audience guides us on a quest to discover the iconic landscapes where the film was shot in a journey through the mountains of Hehuanshan and the visits to different local communities.

I appreciate the intent behind The Sojourn. In particular, the way the documentary uses subtitles is fascinating, as many of the dialogues and interviews in the original language are not translated. The deliberate absence of a full translation refuses a complete understanding of the documentary, as those of us who do not know Mandarin will be missing a big part of what is being said in the film. The absence of conventional subtitles makes for a very captivating film that pushes the boundaries of the traditional documentary conventions that we are used to, which is quite remarkable.

For all its wonderful ideas, however, The Sojourn does not work. It seems like the film is only directed to an audience that is already familiar with its subject matter, one that already has to know where the documentary is going and what it is trying to tell us. This is because, to those who don’t, most of it, especially the second half, is just a confusing juxtaposition of landscape shots, some of which are not even visually original or particularly interesting to watch. As the documentary went on, I could not help but think: what use is a documentary – even a brilliant one – if its narrative is so hard to grasp?

A gallery tunnel in the film The Sojourn
The Sojourn (Open City Documentary Festival)

Perhaps the documentary would have worked better as a feature-length product instead of a short film, which would have given the director more time to explore the various themes it approaches and interviews that it features, which are the most interesting parts of The Sojourn. Especially as an essay film, I wished the thesis and argument of this documentary had been clearer: instead, I felt like the film left too much unsaid with an unclear narrative that cannot be saved even by its fascinating aesthetics and interesting use of subtitles.

Ultimately, I wish the film had been more coherent in its narrative but instead, I found myself more confused at the end than anything else. Had I not known about the plot beforehand, I doubt I would have been able to follow The Sojourn at all. After all, I barely understood the narrative as I very much felt like the short film was a collection of shots that, while underlying the beauty of Taiwan, added little to nothing about to my knowledge of the film at all or of the country’s culture and tradition.

The Sojourn was screened at the Open City Documentary Festival on April 27, 2024.

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