Journey to the East
Sep 1, 2022
Part travel-documentary, part philosophical exploration, George Thompson’s Journey to the East documents one man’s spiritual adventure to discover Daoism and a peaceful mindset in an increasingly chaotic world.
The film’s director and star George Thompson reflects in its open on the ever-growing lists of stressors in life, and fixates on a goal to travel to China to learn the ways of Daoism – without travelling by plane. Set in early 2020, the growing spectre of Covid complicates his journey significantly – but arriving in the country just in time, Thompson guides viewers through the history of China and the ancient philosophy.
Journey to the East is a light-hearted and pleasing documentary that offers an entertaining and educational overview of the Daoist philosophy. At around 55-minutes long, it manages to devote sufficient time to Thompson’s personal journey as well as the historical one, and coherently explains its key themes for unfamiliar audience members. Thompson effectively highlights the benefits of the lifestyle he yearns to discover realistically and pragmatically – avoiding the common pitfall of over-stating the benefits of spiritualism or reaching questionable conclusions.
Thompson himself is a likeable host – inviting viewers into his life and clearly stating the reasoning behind his personal journey. A history of anxiety and stress is cleverly linked to the growing list of alarming news stories that viewers will be familiar with. The contrast of his personality at the film’s conclusion demonstrates that the journey he has taken has indeed changed him, asking viewers to consider their own journey through watching the film itself. Even without the spiritual elements, the footage of his travels to and throughout China match that of much more established documentarians in showing the diversity of the world, and comes across as the authentic diaries of a lone traveller.
Viewers will find the shadow of Coronavirus ever-present from the moment ‘January 2020’ appears on screen. The film does cover covid’s impact in detail at one stage – with George’s journey very nearly ended by the closure of China’s borders. And his managing of one of the world’s strictest lockdowns does feature in the film. However, the film never truly diverts into an examination of covid itself. It is understandable – given the focus at the film’s outset was to explore Daoism and China’s history. However, there is a sense of missed opportunity for a documentarian in China to only cover the virus briefly, particularly given the film’s mentioning of stressors on society – given the immense mental impact lockdowns took on us all.
There are also a few moments where the film tenuously addresses issues which are not convincingly tied to its overall purpose – such as the Black Lives Matter movement or world politics. There is a sense that the film is spreading itself thin by trying to address too much in one go in these occasions. Thompson’s charm means that the highlights are his own exploration of Daoist teaching and ceremonies – but when the film does get philosophical and looks to tie its themes to current events, it is at its best by staying focused on what feels like natural topics like climate change and Covid.
But aside from this, Journey to the East is a quite charming and digestible documentary that both teaches and invites its viewers to reflect on calm in a crazy world. Fans of travel documentaries and those looking to learn more about philosophy will find a lot to explore in George’s journey.