Film of the Week: Stray Dogs
When Tsai Ming-Liang’s Stray Dogs premiered in Venice last year, Guy Lodge predicted in his Variety review that the film would only appeal to the director’s hardcore fans, and that it was possibly “best suited for the gallery circuit.” As it happens, Stray Dogs this week gets a theatrical release in the U.S. through Cinema Guild—although it still seems fated to stay unreleased in Britain. Even so, it’s hard to argue with the idea that Stray Dogs is unlikely to expand Tsai’s following significantly. It’s a challenging film that pushes his characteristic long-take play with duration to new bounds (somehow, it feels too negative to say “extremes”), while withdrawing some of the more immediate pleasures of his earlier work, like relatively transparent narrative, the direct emotional gratification of, say, What Time Is It There? (00), and comedy, which in his work has ranged from Keaton-esque deadpan (still just visible here, in traces) to outright camp (the lurid musical sequences of The Hole  and The Wayward Cloud ).
The question is, of course, whether it’s a problem if Tsai is really only addressing his devoted “happy few.” Was it a problem that late Beckett became increasingly, ever more rigorously Beckettian, precluding himself from ever having an off-Broadway hit? Or that, at some point in his career, it became clear that Pierre Boulez’s compositions would be short on hummable tunes? For many critics of the avant-garde, such creative intransigence, which accepts as inevitable the loss of contact with a wider public, is indeed a problem, often decried as elitism or as a defeatist abandonment of artists’ supposed social responsibility. In any case, there’s no doubt that Tsai is now very clear where he stands as a filmmaker: in his Venice press notes to Stray Dogs, he commented, “I have become tired of cinema,” and said he had no further interest in making “the kinds of films that expect the patronage of cinema audiences.”
Some might view such declarations as loftily arrogant, but Tsai’s recent work bears out his sincerity. Stray Dogs is Tsai’s first narrative feature (insofar as it’s narrative at all, which is moot) since 2006’s I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone, of which the new film is a kind of continuation: both address themes of urban rootlessness, homelessness, and lost identity, both are set partly in vast abandoned buildings left in a state of incompletion. Tsai followed that film with Face (09), an “art film” not least in the sense that it was commissioned by the Louvre: a fragmented nonnarrative spectacle that featured his perennial lead Lee Kang-sheng in Paris, among a starry French cast (Laetitia Casta, Fanny Ardant, Mathieu Amalric, et al) who generally seemed adrift and bewildered. This rarefied and, yes, self-indulgent exercise was the Tsai film most likely to alienate even his most committed believers.
Since then, Tsai and Lee Kang-sheng have worked on a set of short pieces (generally known as the Walker series), most recently this year’s 56-minute Journey to the West: a cycle in which Lee, as a Buddhist monk, walks exceptionally and breathtakingly slowly across various settings. Filmed on the streets of Marseilles, Journey—the only one that I’ve seen—is a mesmerizing performance piece built on the principle of Zen discipline, but you might also see in it a deadpan joke on the very idea of “slow cinema,” pushing the idea of decelerated, protracted action to vertiginous and ultimately comic lengths (especially when Denis Lavant appears, following Lee at a distance, equally slowly). I saw Journey projected in an IMAX theater at this year’s Berlinale, where the vastness of the image and the incongruous nature of the venue for such an ostensibly intimate piece made the occasion less like a standard film screening, something more like a singular art event, the cinema itself becoming a de facto gallery space.
Equally, Stray Dogs doesn’t need to be actually shown on the gallery circuit for it to be a “gallery film” of sorts: as with the works of James Benning or Sharon Lockhart, Tsai now makes films that transform the auditorium into a different kind of space, in which viewers become attentive, and self-consciously present, in a way they wouldn’t be when occupying the exact same seats to watch, say, Let’s Be Cops.
Of course, not everyone experiences a Tsai film in this idealized fashion. You might go into a rapturous trance at Stray Dogs, while I might shift in my seat, or check my watch, or find myself yearning for the lightness and humor of his Goodbye Dragon Inn (03). And Tsai knows this. The penultimate shot of Stray Dogs, lasting just under 13 minutes, is a low-angle head-and-shoulders shot that, until shortly before it ends, consists of a man and a woman looking at something off-screen. Apart from a camera movement at the very start, circling in on the duo, the shot is absolutely still, allowing us to focus on the different watching styles of the two characters. The woman (Chen Shiang-chyi) gazes straight ahead, expressionless, immobile, hardly blinking—and after a while, a tear rolls down her face. The man (Lee Kang-sheng) sways with a sullen expression, occasionally hangs his head or takes a swig of drink, as if in defiant refusal to be affected by whatever it is that’s in front of him.
The following, final shot reveals that to be a charcoal mural depicting a river, a beach, distant mountains. We don’t know what the picture is doing there in this vast abandoned concrete building (spontaneous urban art, reclaiming dead space, or an abandoned luxury commission?), but this cavernous hall has become a gallery, occupied by two viewers responding very differently to what’s on show. By extension, you might see the mural as also a cinema screen, one that happens to be showing a supremely immobile piece of “slow cinema.” And, as we know from previous Tsai films, people react to cinema differently: in Goodbye Dragon Inn (03), set in an old Taipei movie house on the verge of closure, some customers watch a wuxia classic with rapture, as if hypnotized, while others treat it as incidental background for their peripatetic shufflings or erotic explorations in the dark, and one punter sits chomping sunflower seeds and tossing the husks with blithe disregard for the film, the space, the audience alike. Tsai knows that people watch films differently, whether they’re thrill-packed genre pieces or hyper-rarefied art contemplations—so I can’t imagine him being too troubled by, or unprepared for, the reputedly formidable walk-out rate that Stray Dogs incurred in Venice.
Still, you don’t have to be signed up to the Tsai cause to appreciate Stray Dogs; it’s essential viewing if you’re interested in what cinema can do with time, space, fragmentation. It’s also a compelling piece of poetic realism: Tsai remains, along with Pedro Costa, cinema’s foremost painter of urban poverty. Lee Kang-sheng plays a man whose job is to stand motionless by city roadsides, often in torrential rain, holding a placard that advertises luxury real estate. His current makeshift home is an empty goods container, where he looks after his young son and daughter, played by Lee Yi-chieh and Lee Yi-cheng (Tsai is their real-life godfather, Lee Kang-sheng their uncle). One of three women we see may be the children’s mother, or perhaps all three are: Tsai has claimed that he began with one role but divided it into three because of illness during the shoot. In the opening shot, one woman (Yang Kuei-mei) sits by the children’s bedside brushing her long hair, which rhymes visually with the strange satiny texture of the black wall behind them (we later learn that it’s fungal growth resulting from rain damage to the building). A second woman (Lu Yi-ching) works in a supermarket, where she sometimes looks after the children. She makes occasional night visits, again in pouring rain, to the abandoned building, all concrete caverns, dark corridors, and Piranesi-like stairway perspectives, where she feeds stray dogs on the ground floor, and contemplates the charcoal painting upstairs. Then there’s a younger woman (Chen Shiang-chyi) who, in the film’s closing stretch, seems able to give the children a relatively secure home life, mildewed walls notwithstanding.
Are the three women incarnations of one mother, or three separate beings? What is their, or her, history with the father? Little is made clear, and we are left to piece together a vestigial narrative from a chain of disconnected episodes, a jigsaw with pieces of radically different sizes. Stray Dogs is composed of (by my rough count) 73 shots in 136 minutes, a handful very short, some running to three minutes, and two of extraordinary length. One is that penultimate gazing shot, the other a bizarre, deeply unsettling 11-minute single take in which the father discovers in his bed a cabbage which the children have roughly painted with a face, dubbing it “Cabbage Lee” or “Miss Big Boobs” and making it their toy; in a state of alarming emotional meltdown and/or drunkenness, the father variously kisses it, attempts to asphyxiate it with a pillow, and chomps it to bits, weeping uncontrollably. It’s another intensely compelling Lee Kang-sheng performance moment, a display of the father’s real-time breakdown, variously evoking desperation, rage, warped erotic passion, frenzied abjection—yet it’s also grotesquely comic.
But we’re not given any clear directions on what sort of emotions we’re witnessing. In another scene, the father impassively intones what first seems to be a poem—“In anger my hair stands on end / And as the rain stops / I launch a chill cry at the heavens… / My valiant heart loses hope / My exploits are nothing but mud and dust…”—which he then begins to sing, ever louder, eyes welling up but barely blinking. We don’t know if we’re seeing an expression of anger, defeat, determination, or madness. Even when Tsai seems to bring us closest to his characters, we still can’t easily make an affective connection. Emotion may be on display in Stray Dogs, but the extreme, even melodramatic tenor of its enactment makes it all the more alienating; it’s impossible, I think, to be directly touched in this film as we are by the subtler signals of, say, The Hole (remember that tender Chapline-sque shorthand of arms reaching out to make contact?).
Tsai regulars will unarguably get something extra from Stray Dogs, because of the ample echoes of his previous work. He is still cinema’s great poet of lousy plumbing, a mantle he inherited from Tarkovsky. Where earlier films had characters’ homes invaded by water seepages, the characters here effectively live in the rain: the third woman’s dwelling is ostensibly a solid shelter, but it seems virtually to be composed of rain, its blackened walls with their eerily luminous white streaks actually suggesting something like a solidified downpour (the astonishing production design is by Tsai himself and Masa Liu, and the photography, which again features some of Tsai’s trademark skewed perspectives, by Liao Pen-jung and Sung Wen Zhong). As the camera scans the distressed walls in close-up, the woman tells the children about the water damage: “The house started crying and crying… Can you see the tears?”
The counterpart to this seemingly inhospitable, yet truly lived-in place is a secure, dry, solid dream house that the father visits: one of the apartments he advertises. It’s made of glass, steel, and marble, with sinuous, spiral staircases—another version of the deluxe illicit love nest in Tsai’s Vive l’Amour (94). It’s soulless, a pure mercantile space, yet it’s the one place that the father gets a decent dry night’s sleep, offering a rare touch of Tsai’s almost subliminal humor: a shot of the father, asleep between pristine snowy sheets, reveals one bare foot comically sticking out of the bed’s corner.
For Tsai regulars, Stray Dogs also offers the latest report on the gradual metamorphosis of Lee Kang-sheng, whose ageing has become increasingly tangible from film to film. Tsai is interested in what time and the elements do to faces and bodies, as well to buildings: it’s no accident that he has twice worked with Jean-Pierre Léaud. But Lee, in the 22 years since Rebels of the Neon God, seems to have had it worse than the young Antoine Doinel. A sweet-faced, impish ingénu in Tsai’s early films, in Stray Dogs he’s thickened by age and looks physically weary, and in certain shots, his face is alarmingly bloated, eyes so red round the rims they look inflamed by hard living, sleeplessness, or over-exposure to cold and rain.
Personally, I found Stray Dogs as mesmerizing as anything Tsai has done, but not as satisfying as his best work: I missed the richness of those films with a more tangible narrative drift, or stronger humor, or more surprising sexual intensity (The Wayward Cloud, for example); conversely, it’s free of that film’s lurid facetiousness. But Stray Dogs shows considerable compassion and political anger at urban abandonment, of people and buildings alike, and those feelings resonate even while Tsai strips out the narrative shape that usually allows us to connect emotionally with human dramas in a realistic context. Stray Dogs resembles the houses in which it takes place: an emptied-out frame of a narrative that we’re left to explore, a space inhabited by human presences that sometimes feel irreducibly alive (as the children do in their scenes), sometimes like ghosts. This may not be Tsai’s most inspired film, or the one that will haunt you most profoundly, but it’s a compelling case of a director’s work pushing right up against the edges of its possibility.