Pingyao 2021 review: As Far as I Can Walk (Stefan Arsenijević)

As Far as I Can Walk is a film about a young man trapped between worlds – he is a pariah in his home country as a result of his decision to flee his native land to pursue a better life, while becoming an even more maligned outsider in the country that has allowed him sanctuary.”

The quest narrative is quite literally a tale as old as time. Stretching back to the earliest known days of both oral and written literature in every language across all cultures, stories of the valiant journeys of dashing heroes have captivated audiences for millennia. Every civilization and nation has a set of cherished stories that are passed down from generations – and for Serbia, this would be the tale of Strahinja Banović, the dashing nobleman and knight who is the subject of one of the country’s most beloved works of epic literature. His story has been brought to the present day by director Stefan Arsenijević, who has previously merged tradition with modernity in his prior films. As Far as I Can Walk is a fascinating and provocative social drama, a carefully curated series of moments in the life of Strahinja, who has gone from a Serbian nobleman to a young Ghanaian migrant trying to make a life for himself and his wife Ababuo in contemporary Serbia. An achingly beautiful film that sees the director bringing the antiquity into the modern artistic landscape, As Far as I Can Walk is a triumph, a deeply meaningful human odyssey that prioritizes both honouring the original material on which it was based, and infusing it with a powerful message that transcends geographical and cultural boundaries, representing a new step forward in modern world cinema.

The connections between As Far as I Can Walk and the original epic poem on which it was based are more tenuous than the publicity surrounding this film would have you believe. Only loosely based on the original story, drawing inspiration from its core ideas, this film aims to be a fiercely independent glimpse into the migrant experience, done through the lens of a modern portrayal of the quest genre. Like more traditional entries into this category of storytelling, As Far as I Can Walk has many of the pivotal components – a valiant hero who will go to the ends of the earth if it means accomplishing the mission he chose to undertake, the perilous journey that takes him through treacherous locales that put him in direct contact with some truly maniacal villains, all for the sake of finding his proverbial “damsel in distress” on the other side of his journey. In this film, the character of Strahinja is certainly in search of the elusive Holy Grail – but unlike the tangible object found in the Arthurian legend, it is more a feeling of liberation and freedom which is actively pursued by many characters seeking a better life outside the stringent borders of their present home. Taken on its own, As Far as I Can Walk is a beautiful and effective film, and the correlations to the original narrative are slightly tenuous – but they add nuance and heart to the proceedings, which means that there is a rich, evocative sense of storytelling exuding from every frame of this film.

As engaging and compelling as the correlations between this story and its culturally resonant roots may be, As Far as I Can Walk is defined by more than just trivial literary references. Instead, much of its impact comes from its portrayal of the plight of migrants, the story centering on one man’s journey to try and find a better life for himself and his beloved. At the start of the story, we’ve already been introduced to their current situation; their existence in Serbia is challenging, but barely as difficult as in their native Ghana which they fled to find better opportunities on the other side of the never-ending ocean that concealed worlds filled with potential. This idyllic image of Europe is obviously far from realistic, and Arsenijević is intrepid in showing the reality many immigrants, whether legitimate or illegal, have to face inside these nations that promise opportunities, but often at an inhumane cost. Functioning as one of the more brutal and visceral depictions of the migrant crisis, the film uses the perspective of both native Europeans and immigrants to weave together an enthralling but heart-wrenching story. It examines a pressing issue, mainly through the combination of shattering social drama and harsh indictment of the bureaucratic process that was supposedly designed to help those seeking asylum, but which actually seems to want to keep them out at the same time, one of the many deep contradictions integral to this film and its unsettling image of the lives of immigrants.

Ultimately, As Far as I Can Walk is a film about a young man trapped between worlds – he is a pariah in his home country as a result of his decision to flee his native land to pursue a better life, while becoming an even more maligned outsider in the country that has allowed him sanctuary. This film is one built on duality, which is specifically clear in the film’s attempts to contemporize an old legend by bringing it into the modern world, applying it to broad tenets of what constitutes the “new” Europe (a controversial subject that has come about as a result of the migrant crisis), working as a fascinating account of the old world colliding with the new. The blend of cultures gives As Far as I Can Walk a distinct, layered atmosphere, the director drawing from numerous sources in constructing the story of the main character who undergoes a very unconventional quest, a metaphysical journey of self-realization coupled with physical travail that threatens not only his freedom, but his life. This film proves that the march of time and inevitable progress that comes about as a result of globalization will create new stories that need to be told – and this striking, unforgettable migrant odyssey is a perfect addition to a growing canon of meaningful stories that dig deep into the cultural divide, and tell tales of survival, tenacity and compassion, worthy of only the finest literary legends.