The first piece to read on Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs is Blake Williams‘s for Cinema Scope. You won’t find a synopsis, and there’s no suggestion as to how many stars he’d award it (though my guess is, quite a few). Instead, serving marvelously as a primer on Tsai and his work, the piece is also an invaluable contextualization of Stray Dogs, beginning with a suggestion for how to read the title, and moving on to bodies in Tsai’s films, the evolution of the duration of his shots since he went digital, a quick note on why Tsai is not a structuralist filmmaker, and then:
Tsai’s mise en scène has become increasingly indistinguishable from the vernacular of performance art: the emphasis he places on his characters’ bodies, their placement and function in space, and the depiction of a gesture or task from beginning to end are all hallmarks of the Conceptualist tradition. One can see the connections further when looking at early-’60s and -’70s video artists (many of whom were essentially performance artists and saw video as a documentary tool), namely Bruce Nauman’s studio performances, Vito Acconci’s bodily/spatial interventions, and Shigeko Kubota’s recurring attention to water (especially rain and rivers). To varying degrees, these three artists can all be tied to the Fluxus movement, which makes for an even deeper reference point in mining Tsai’s recent stylistic and aesthetic methods. In particular, certain Zen philosophies promoted in the work of John Cage and the fellow Fluxists he influenced (e.g., Yoko Ono) are most definitely discernible in late Tsai.
A discussion of Tsai’s work in theater follows.
So. The set-up, courtesy of the AFP: “A father—played by actor Lee Kang-sheng, a regular in Tsai’s feature films—scrapes out a meager living as a human billboard for luxury apartments in Taipei, while his teenage son and young daughter live off supermarket food samples. The three come together again at the end of each repetitive day to eat, wash and sleep. With extremely long takes and the minimalist dialogue characteristic of ‘Slow’ cinema, Stray Dogs explores the toll life on the streets takes on a father who can offer his children little more than basic shelter in an abandoned house and washing facilities in a public bathroom.”
For Little White Lies‘ David Jenkins, “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… 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 grueling 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.”
“Watching paint dry is an action movie compared to some of the agonizingly slow one-shot or two-shot scenes that Tsai forces his audience to sit through,” writes Screen‘s Lee Marshall, “like the six-minute take of a guy eating a cabbage that his daughter has adopted as a kind of doll.” Still: “The mix of tenderness and dereliction, the constant presence of rain and wind, the eerie sense of a life on the fringes in which other humans pass by like ghosts in the background (or are we watching a family of ghosts?), the possibility that the cabbage, the mountain mural and a patriotic Chinese song the father sings at a certain point may add up to a lament for a lost rural lifestyle, and the other-worldly melancholy that pervades the whole exercise, are the scraps we cling on to in the absence of story. Not enough for a square meal—but sometimes at the movies, hunger is more memorable than satiety.”
Sidenote. In Variety, Nick Vivarelli and Patrick Frater report that festival director Alberto Barbera is playing down Venice’s listing of Stray Dogs as coming from France and “Chinese Taipei,” diplomat-speak for countries—like Italy—that don’t recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state rather than a rebel province, as the People’s Republic sees it.
Screening in Competition in Venice, Stray Dogs is headed to the Wavelengths program in Toronto.
Updates, 9/7: “Most films by Tsai are about rain, ruined buildings and wrecked humans essaying self-recreation,” writes Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times. “So is Stray Dogs. But Tsai’s favorite star (Lee Kang-sheng) has now grown from a pretty face into a powerful actor. His ‘human billboard’ protagonist is partly a bust generation’s Buster Keaton, partly a mid-city, mid-life-crisis King Lear. Tsai’s own two godchildren play, very appealingly, the human flotsam this single dad drags from hovel to hovel. And three different actresses share—inexplicably yet persuasively—a role that seems to combine estranged mum with good and evil fairy godmothers. The film’s closing scenes are out on a far limb of fantasized expressionism, including an astonishing two-character shot, wordless and near motionless, runic with enigma yet alive with emotion, that lasts—what?—10? 15 minutes? No one in the Venice audience dropped a pin.”
For Guy Lodge, writing in Variety, “this undeniably committed assemblage of long takes, desolate gazes and striking concrete architecture lacks the demented lyricism of more engaging Tsai works The Wayward Cloud or even 2009’s barely distributed Face…. ‘I have become tired of cinema,’ Tsai rather grandly announces in the press notes for his latest, adding that he has no interest in making ‘the kinds of films that expect the patronage of cinema audiences.’ Viewed as a corroborating statement in that manifesto, Stray Dogs works with effective perversity: Never the most broadly accessible of filmmakers, Tsai here seems to be stripping his ornately eccentric style down to formal fundamentals. A certain pictorial grace remains; his sense of humor, sadly, appears to have been largely tossed out with the bathwater.”
The Playlist‘s Oliver Lyttelton finds that “the filmmaking here is almost impossibly well-realized, right down to the evocative sound design, adding up to an fairly unforgettable experience. But we will say that while the form is undeniable, the content isn’t quite as transcendent.”
And the Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin finds that “the idea of pitting it against Philomena and Tracks for the Golden Lion is utterly bizarre.” He especially admires “the film’s 11-minute centrepiece shot, in which Lee’s character, alone in his hovel, takes his daughter’s cabbage doll and holds it tenderly to his chest before smothering it with a pillow—and finally eating it in a frenzy, as tears roll down his cheeks. Written down it sounds ridiculous, but on screen it’s a soul-janglingly strange spectacle; a kind of compassionate cannibalism-by-proxy…. Every shot of Stray Dogs has been built with utter formal mastery; every sequence exerts an almost telepathic grip. This film could have been beamed to Venice from another planet.”
“I confess to being a great fan of the Taiwanese auteur, and that’s why I’m happy about his decision to retire from making films,” writes Pierre Hombrebueno at Twitch. “It is quite evident, now, that Tsai has nothing left to say anymore, to himself or the audience. His cinematographic career is perfect, and perfection means that there is nothing left to add, that we’ve reached a point of risky recycle. Tsai Ming-liang is over. Long live Tsai Ming-liang.”
Updates, 9/8: The Chinese Film Market interviews Lee Kang-sheng, who also runs a café with Tsai. And “walking will probably be a continuation. We will try to walk in different cities, record this experience and make them into a few films. Actually, I hope my pace could be slower.”
“For this critic,” writes Neil Young at Indiewire, “it’s a soaring masterpiece, a huge and complex work of art, and one for the ages. I saw it twice here, once with my fellow critics and once with a ‘mixed’ audience of critics and (mainly) public, and would now rank it ahead of every new film I’ve seen since James Benning’s 2007 farewell to 16mm, casting a glance.”
Update, 9/11: “Ever since he first emerged as a distinctive voice of new Taiwanese cinema two decades ago with Rebels of the Neon God and Vive l’Amour (the latter a Golden Lion winner in Venice), Tsai has been stripping away the standard conventions of film, increasingly so in recent years,” writes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. “Stray Dogs does have the feel of a melancholy farewell.”
Update, 9/12: Stray Dogs “is not some impenetrable endurance test,” A.A. Dowd assures readers at the AV Club. “Looking beyond its epic long takes, Tsai’s latest is small and human and primal—a howl from the gutter, and a survival story about life on the fringe, in which a family of four ekes out an existence one day and scavenged meal at a time…. Even as I struggled to grasp the full significance of the image Stray Dogs ends on, the full force of its compassion bowled me over. It’s a fiercely humanistic movie.”
“It’s just achingly sad,” writes the Dissolve‘s Scott Tobias of one of his favorite films in Toronto, “to the point where the walls themselves, streaked black from water damage and neglect, appear tear-stained.”
Updates, 9/14: Daniel Kasman and Adam Cook discuss the film in the Notebook. Danny: “Tsai’s digital camera, while often holding its characteristically dry/wry distance, is now adventuring into closer and stranger places: incredible close-ups of faces are major highlights in the work, including a jaw-dropping, simple-as-pie long take of two faces at the end of the film, during which, for me, nearly the entire film re-played in my mind, and was re-evaluated.” Adam: “I’m sometimes surprised to rediscover how small and intimate his films actually are; when I watch them they feel infinite somehow, there’s so much left to suggestion and mystery that it’s easy to forget that the core of Tsai Ming-liang’s cinema put simply is people in spaces, alone (even when they’re not).”
“Since the director’s preoccupations place him at a point somewhere between the theatrical feature and the gallery, what’s superb here is the striking of that balance,” writes Sight & Sound editor Nick James. “Dramatic images and startling compositions abound as much for their own sake as for their storytelling efficacy. The mother figure shins up trees in high heels; the father tries to punt his children out onto a lake, inside the massive deserted building where they sleep; there’s a huge mural which transfixes the mother as if it were a television set. One shot—foregrounding one of the actresses in close up, with Lee standing just behind her shoulder—lasts for perhaps eight minutes (I didn’t time it), and will no doubt become a significant event in the evolution of slow cinema. Stray Dogs—named for the wild pack the mother feeds every night—is unforgettably vivid.”
Update, 9/19: “This year’s TIFF marked possibly the last time actual film will be projected during the 10-day event,” notes Jake Cole at Film.com, “and the festival’s best films hummed with political anger or, in the case of the Miyazaki, the wistful resignation of a long career. Incorporating all of those traits, Stray Dogs may be the festival’s summarizing film. Yet it is also as exploratory and experimental as the most radical of the movies to be shown, and it is not for nothing than this established auteur’s potential swan song appeared not in the Masters program but in Wavelengths. If this is where Tsai gets off, he—in his singular, quiet way—leaves cinema farther along than he found it. Not bad going for a film whose final half-hour consists of silently staring at a wall.”
Update, 9/27: Kenji Fujishima at In Review Online: “As madly inspired in its conceits as his films often are, Tsai’s brand of melancholy whimsy remains keyed to the real emotions churning underneath; his films, including Stray Dogs, are as affecting as human dramas as they are as poetic objects. How can a penultimate, daringly protracted shot of two people basically just standing around silently for about 15 minutes can be so infused with gripping suspense? Such is the magic of cinema.”
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