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Stray Dogs

Posted by martinteller on February 15, 2014

I have long championed Tsai Ming-liang as one of my favorite directors.  Without question my favorite living director.  And yet, until today I had never seen one of his films on the big screen.  Now I finally had that opportunity and grabbed it.  And kind of blew it.  I arrived late to the theater… early enough to witness the opening titles, but too late to find a good seat.  I was stuck near the front of the theater, directly in front of the very right edge of the screen.  Hardly ideal conditions, and for the first several minutes I silently cursed myself for not allowing more time.

Although the viewing angle made things difficult, eventually the rhythms of Tsai eased me back into that familiar cinematic world.  The story concerns a man (Lee Kang-sheng, naturally… who else could it be?) and his two children (Yi Cheng Lee and Yi Chieh Lee, I believe the first time children have been featured prominently in a Tsai film).  In the prologue, we see the children in a dingy room with a woman (Yang Kuei-Mei, the female lead of both Vive L’Amour and The Hole) who is presumably their mother.  In the first half of the film proper, there is no sign or mention of her.  The father and his children squat in abandoned buildings.  He is able to afford food only because of his tedious job holding an advertisement in traffic.  A supermarket employee (Lu Yi-Ching, Lee’s mother in just about every Tsai film where a mother is called for) takes pity on the children and tries to help them, the same way she feeds stray dogs with discarded products from the store.  The film takes an unusual turn halfway through, and we now see the family in the presence of another woman (Chen Shiang-chyi, the female lead in several Tsai films from The River to Visage), more of a family but still squatting in abandoned buildings.

Whether or not any or all of these actresses represent the same character is an unresolved mystery.  I prefer to think of them as different people, living perhaps in different variations of the same reality, presenting three different maternal figures for this homeless family.  One is there but has given up.  One is caring but exists on the outside.  The third is perhaps the closest to an ideal that children can hope for: both present and nurturing.  I would need to see the film again to formulate a deeper opinion on this.  With the exception of Visage, I think it’s Tsai’s most ambiguous narrative.  And maybe his most challenging in terms of action — or rather, lack of action.  It rivals Goodbye Dragon Inn in shot length, and the penultimate shot lasts somewhere around 15 minutes.  15 minutes of near stasis that tried even the patience of this diehard Tsai fanatic.  There were moments when I thought, “This time you’re pushing it too far, you’re becoming a parody of yourself.”

And yet the payoff is worth it.  The buildup is excessive to a frustrating degree, but it achieves a profound effect, one that hit me strong in the theater and even stronger on reflection afterwards.  It’s one of those transcendent Tsai moments that makes you realize how fleeting and precious those instances of real human connection are.  And oh yes, that is a theme here, like pretty much all his work.  But in this case it’s explicitly tied to the condition of homelessness, and other (incredibly long) shots demonstrate how Lee’s sense of love and nurturing has been suffocated by the need to merely survive.  Like the watermelons in The Wayward Cloud, food becomes an outlet for emotional outburst.

Once again, water plays an enigmatic but everpresent role here.  Sometimes it’s the rain that endlessly falls on Lee as he stands in traffic with his sign (Tsai really makes you feel the heartbreaking tedium of his existence).  At a later point, Chen explains that it was water that made their living place so decrepit, cracking the walls and coloring the paint.  Water is so persistently oppressive in Tsai’s films, and yet it’s also a vital lifeforce, as in the ending to I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone.  It’s like the repressed emotions that are threatening to overwhelm the characters if they’re not expressed… a raging tide of love and compassion being held back at all times.  I still don’t really know what water means to Tsai, but it has a primal force to it.

I’m really surprised I’ve written this much so far, because I have yet to solidify my feelings about it.  A second viewing (under better conditions) is definitely required.  I’m not going to rank it among my favorites yet, but the more I think about it and write about it, the more I feel it working on me.  Rating: Very Good (85)


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