Stray Dogs Dir. Tsai Ming-Liang

[The Cinema Guild; 2014]

Styles: drama, stasis
Others: I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, The River, Pedro Costa’s Fountainhas Trilogy

Tsai Ming-Liang’s cinema has always been primarily about physical spaces. The people and events that occur within these spaces are not so much secondary as they are defined, transformed, and dominated by it, even reflected within it. Whether it’s the gradually flooding apartment in The River, the smoke seeping throughout Kuala Lumpor in I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, or the closing cinema in Goodbye Dragon Inn, the textures and physical conditions of these settings remain powerful representations of the psychic states of its inhabitants, yet they’re always mysterious and elusive. The Taipei of Stray Dogs is no different, where even the highway (where the nameless protagonist holds a heavy sign advertising a luxury apartment complex) and the enormous supermarket (where his children hang out at eating free samples while he works) take on an alien feeling that’s as equally unsettling as the sinister abandoned building where they sleep. Poverty has rendered these people emotionless, and as ghosts, they float throughout these spaces merely enduring their existence with what little help alcohol and makeshift toys can provide.

In the hands of most directors, Stray Dogs would at some point devolve into an exercise of miserablism, wallowing in pity for its characters, but Tsai’s approach is so singular and peculiar that normal, broad emotions such as those never even threaten to enter the equation. The film barely contains characters, at least in any traditional sense of the word, nor does it hint at any threadlines of a plot. Yet it’s so deliberately paced that it makes even the films of Hou Hsiao-Hsien or Apitchatpong Weerasethakul feel like blockbusters by comparison, and it’s so meticulously framed and composed — from the intricate sound design to the masterfully crafted cinematography — that it can’t be pigeonholed as a neo-realist film either. But instead of focusing on what it isn’t, let’s dig into the infinitely more slippery question of what it is: a remarkably affecting depiction of poverty in Taipei, capturing the mundanity and degradations of life on the outer fringes of society. The repeated shots of the father holding a sign in increasingly inclement weather; of the family brushing their teeth at a dilapidated sink, then using the water leaking from the pipe below to bathe themselves; of a man staring at a potentially mystical moral, perhaps a portal of sorts, while getting progressively more drunk; of a lonely grocery store clerk who repeatedly puts herself in harm’s way to stalk the children (it’s unclear whether this is to act as their sole savior, to simply insert herself in their lives or, presumably, both) all evoke a nearly hopeless sense of entrapment, an impenetrable stasis that keeps them perpetually in society’s blind spot.

On the other hand, Stray Dogs is also far from a straightforward portrayal of poverty. From the ever-presence of water (Tsai’s most common motif) and the cracked walls of their various abodes, to the mysterious return of the mother (or mother figure?) from the opening shot and an unexplained manifestation of an expensive full-body massage chair, it’s clear that Tsai isn’t operating on a purely realistic, logical level either. The film’s most bizarre and chilling scene involves a doll the children made from a head of cabbage that the father discovers next to him when he awakes one morning. Upon staring at its blank, expressionless face that the children drew onto it, he attempts to violently suffocate it with his pillow, kiss it, gouge out its eyes, then feverishly eat it for several minutes before fully breaking down. All this unfolds in a mesmerizing single take that culminates at the peak of his despair and is packed with conflicting emotions unearthed from what must have been years of mental hardship in unsustainable, inhumane conditions. This scene — easily the greatest food-item-cum-emotional-catharsis sequence in cinema since There Will Be Blood’s milkshake diatribe — is a perfect encapsulation of the film, brimming with raw emotion yet tinged with the enigmatic strangeness that pervades all of Tsai’s work. It’s terrifying, hilarious, wholly tragic, and among the greatest, most memorable scenes in recent years.

Aside from its intense focus on surface materiality and atmosphere (and the aforementioned batshit crazy cabbage scene), Stray Dogs also takes a unique approach to time. Tsai’s shots are as long as they’ve ever been and the camera movement even more limited, which combined with the listless movements of his actors — particularly those of the father (longtime Tsai muse Lee Kang-Sheng at his deadpan best) — creates a sense of boundlessness within the finite, where moments of pain and boredom are stretched beyond all manageable limits. In Stray Dogs, tedium is lethal and time is the enemy of those caught within its inescapable and vicious circularity. Besides the few scenes where the characters are eating and, as animalistic as it’s portrayed, are achieving some sort of pleasure, nearly every other sequence is a mere endurance test against a never-ending array of insufferable circumstances, be they physical, mental, or spiritual. The intensified materiality of Tsai’s cinematic world enhances the brutality of this most-demanding means of existence, but also helps to ground its transitions into more ethereal territory in the final act where the cerebral and the corporeal, the dream and the reality all merge in a powerful and mystifying climax. The emotional and geographical wasteland where this takes place is both foreign and achingly real, and for those with the patience to traverse its terrains, its rewards are as vast as they are strange and unsettling.

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