STRAY DOGS (Jiao you) B
Taiwan France (138 mi) 2013 d: Tsai Ming-liang
Taiwan France (138 mi) 2013 d: Tsai Ming-liang
A film like this should be required viewing for patrons of Hollywood action movies, whose attention deficit disorder mindset has become synonymous with American mainstream culture, where viewers should be locked in a room until they can write an essay explaining why this film could win critical acclaim and festival prizes, as this was the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Venice where it premiered. If all they can say is it’s “garbage” or “a complete waste of time,” which will likely be their first inclination, let them keep trying until they come up with something more substantial. Tsai Ming-liang began making films that had more of a narrative aspect to them, but were largely expressed through avant-garde or experimental imagery, where he has always shown a proficiency for slow cinema, near wordless long takes and little explanation for what’s taking place onscreen. As his career evolved, the narrative aspect nearly disappeared and his films have only gotten even slower, with long shots on a single held image, a throwback to many Warhol films, creating an effect that can only be linked with the visual mastery of other experimental filmmakers, where his long takes, many beyond the 10-minute mark, rival Michael Snow or James Benning. As his films are shown at film festivals with more traditional forms of cinema, they tend to stand out, and there are inevitable walk-outs from viewers who simply can’t tolerate the completely different stylistic approach. However, if they want to see this director in pure entertainment mode, they’d do well to check out the absurdly hilarious colorful artificiality of THE HOLE (1998), something of an apocalyptic ode to Hollywood musicals. Tsai Ming-liang has always made movies about alienation, where he was born in Malaysia before moving to Taiwan, feeling like an outsider in each culture, never able to feel accepted anywhere. Like American black artists of the 20th century who found more acceptance in Paris than at home, Tsai migrated to Paris and began receiving European funding for his films, and was one of the only filmmakers ever allowed to film inside the Louvre Museum in his prior film FACE (2009).
With this film, his 11th feature, the director has announced it will be his last and final film, which would be a shame. He is well liked among cinephiles largely because what he brings to the world of cinema is so unlike anyone else. Even if you don’t dramatically engage with his films on a personal level, as they are so extremely emotionally detached, there’s always something in every one of his films that stands out, and it’s usually different for each viewer. Much like watching an Ozu film, Tsai’s slower pace forces viewers to alter the way they watch films, as you’re not figuring out whodunit or looking for clues, and while there may be violence, it’s an entirely different approach, as it’s mostly internalized. Instead you’re simply gazing at whatever incredible images happen to be onscreen. The actor Lee Kang-Sheng has been in every one of Tsai’s films, becoming the director’s alter ego, where his wordless, deadpan acting style has more in common with Silent era cinema. What story there is concerns a homeless father (Lee) living on the fringes of Tapei while raising two young children, entering into the mainstream during the day, but then disappearing into the outer margins by night, encamped in an abandoned concrete structure they’ve inhabited. Without any indication, the film is really divided in half, where without initially realizing it, the second half may actually precede the first half, where the only real clue is the changing faces of the mother figure, who may or may not be the same character. Initially separated from the children’s mother, the kids eat on the street and spend their time tasting free samples and running freely through the aisles of a modern supermarket, where a grocery clerk, Lu Yi-ching, takes a personal interest in the often abandoned children, as the father’s job requires him to stand on the side of the highway hoisting a billboard on a stick and simply remain standing there in all manner of weather. Here he endures typhoon-like winds and is forced to endure the everpresent deluge of rain.
Most of the film is spent wandering through the crumbling back regions of the city, through industrialized lots, unfinished construction sites, dilapidated buildings, and overgrown bush, where Tsai has an acute eye for visual irony, much like Jacques Tati in PLAYTIME (1967), where winding stairs lead into a dreamlike futuristic abstraction, much like a M.C. Escher drawing, where a clever use of camera angles produces an optical illusion of architectural impossibility, while the sterile and washed out look of the modernistic supermarket is reminiscent of Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s austere documentaries. But the decaying ruins of a home in the second half feels more like what’s left after fire damage, where the walls appear covered in soot, with oddly shaped fungi growing at random, and here the mother is Chen Shian-chyi, seen in the opening shot combing her hair. The deepening divide with her aloof husband is perfectly expressed when she fumigates the bathtub and his clothes after he takes a bath, as if he is an insect that must be eradicated. In their odd and mysterious way, Tsai’s way of telling a story evokes empathy, where the children appear, for all practical purposes, normal and fairly happy, even living outdoors in a demolition zone, but it’s impossible not to have sympathy for what they’re going through, where it’s as if they’re surviving in a war zone. On top of that, the parents have unresolved issues which are never discussed, but are everpresent, hanging over their heads like a cloud of gloom. As in so many Tsai Ming-liang films, a torrent of rain is everpresent, where the characters continue to be drenched, only adding to their miseries. Finally, there is an unmistakable resemblance to Weerasethakul’s SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY (2006), arguably still his best film, as the interior space has a life all of its own, much of it feeling toxic or contaminated, like The Zone in Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), where the camera develops a relationship with a wall mural sitting alone in the ruins of a decaying and dilapidated building, where on two different occasions, characters are so mesmerized by what they see that time literally stops, as they temporarily become frozen objects unable to remove themselves from the environment. In much the same way, Lee Kang-Sheng can’t shake his environment, continually living on the edge in a dire economic state, seemingly frozen in time, dehumanized, on the verge of losing his children, no longer able to feel any real semblance of life, giving the finale a lingering taste of apocalyptic doom.