Stray Dogs

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Tsai Ming-Liang

Starring

Lee Kang-sheng Lu Yi-Ching Yang Kuei-Mei

Anticipation.

Finally, Stray Dogs reaches the UK.

Enjoyment.

A mesmerising piece of cinema which stands alone in its slow awesomeness.

In Retrospect.

A monumental achievement.

Tsai Ming-liang’s (s)low-fi masterpiece Stray Dogs finally makes it to UK cinemas.

With Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs, it takes no less than three shots and maybe two edits before you know – for absolute certain – that you’re in the close company of a master filmmaker, an artist who is in complete control of every detail of every frame he creates. The opening shot is of a woman sat alongside two sleeping children, one boy and one girl. She is combing her hair in front of her eyes in what looks to be some kind of semi-conscious torpor. The room has black, water-damaged walls – as if “the house has been crying,” she later comments.

The long take continues. The sole movement comprises of the children’s cosy nocturnal shifts. There’s so much texture and information in this stunning tableau: the fact that the woman is sitting beside the children suggests a strained relationship; the decrepitude of the domicile infers that these people could live below the poverty line; yet, the soundness of the children’s sleep says that whatever their lot in life, they’re content with it.

Then bam, the first cut. And it takes us from darkness to light, interior to exterior, from man-made to organic, from the urban to the rural, from sleep to wake. It’s a hard, intense cut that gains even further impact from the length and quietude of the previous shot. We see the tangled roots of a giant tree as the children – foraging? playing? travelling? escaping? – wander by. Every cut in the film offers a tonal jolt followed by some kind of visual/aural surprise. Tsai takes pleasure in this simple act of abrupt transportation.

A haggard father figure/guardian is later introduced, played by Tsai regular and muse, Lee Kang-sheng (who also, incidentally, is behind the calligraphy used for the main title card). His sad-eyed performance here is canon-worthy, the burning human force which complements Tsai’s extraordinary long takes. Within single shots, he is often moved to tears, gains composure, then is moved to tears again. Technically, it defies belief.

Though easily chalked up as a tough, obtuse art movie which punishes its audience with a refusal to conform to traditional cinematic grammar, Stray Dogs is in fact simplicity itself. As the title plainly puts it, this is a film which addresses the gruelling daily trails of the Taiwanese underclass by presenting them as a pack of roving mutts, scavenging for food, blithely blurring the line between private and public spaces, existing on the fringes, indifferent to the elements, ignored by everyone. The film is the direct articulation of that idea.

There are explosions of violence, too, as even though these “dogs” drift through their unfortunate lives with quiet impunity, they are burdened with a sense of regret, cognisant of the lives of plenty they are being denied by the economic shackles of the state. Cinema often focuses on food and material decadence, but rarely does it focus on the physical act of eating. There are two jaw-dropping scenes in Stray Dogs which see Lee devouring food in a violently voracious manner, rejecting all common etiquette in a tragic acknowledgement of his status as a social outsider. First, he hurriedly sucks the gristle off a chicken bone, and then later, in a single take, he weeps while tearing at a raw cabbage with his teeth.

The latter scene is particularly remarkable, as the cabbage was, up to this point, being used as a head for a make-shift female puppet named Miss Big Boobs which the girl had created as a sleeping companion. The act of eating the cabbage is in itself an intense spectacle, but the fact that it was being used as a human head makes the scene at once horrifying, harrowing and strangely erotic.

With its constant focus on dripping faucets, leaky houses and driving rain, this is unmistakably a Tsai Ming-liang joint. Here, the water that surrounds the characters at every turn – rough weather, bogs, drains, buildings, public restrooms – takes on an almost biblical presence, as if even the inanimate elements bear a grudge against their modest existence.

Though Stray Dogs boasts that rare quality of being unlike anything else out there, the film it bares closest comparison to is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. The similarities only begin to reveal themselves in the climactic stages where the film takes a turn for the poetically existential. The characters appear to have been naturally gravitating towards their own iteration of The Zone, that unusual space which, once inside, professes to offer answers to profound spiritual conundrums.

It’s unclear whether the man and woman in Stray Dogs find solace and acceptance during their time in the ‘Zone’, as Tsai leaves the nature of their onward journey open to speculation. Every shot in this film instantly etches itself on the memory, but you’ll have to find a special place for the last three which are some of the most extraordinary ever committed to film.

Published 8 May 2015

Anticipation.

Finally, Stray Dogs reaches the UK.

Enjoyment.

A mesmerising piece of cinema which stands alone in its slow awesomeness.

In Retrospect.

A monumental achievement.

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