Stray Dogs (2013)

Review #1,119

Director:  Tsai Ming-liang
Cast:  Lee Kang-sheng, Chen Shiang-chyi, Lee Yi Cheng
Plot:  An alcoholic man and his two young children barely survive in Taipei. They cross path with a lonely grocery clerk who might help them make a better life.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won Grand Special Jury Prize & Golden Mouse - Special Mention (Venice).
Runtime:  138min
Rating:  M18 for some nudity.

You won't see the cabbage the same way again after viewing Stray Dogs.  That could be said of the watermelon in The Wayward Cloud (2005), the sexually explicit film that director Tsai Ming-liang dabbled with in the mid -2000s.  His latest won him the Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, and Best Director and Best Actor at last year's Golden Horse Awards.

Stray Dogs is not to everyone's taste, but it doesn't mean that you won't be able to appreciate it.  I didn't quite enjoy it, but as a film bearing the mark of an artist whose style and mode of storytelling vastly differ from his contemporaries, it is quite an experience to see it on the big screen, as I did as part of the 25th Singapore International Film Festival.

Perhaps storytelling is too loose a word to use here – Stray Dogs doesn't function as a narrative.  Rather, it is a series of striking visual compositions, nearly all of which are still shots and long takes.  They come together not to tell a story, at least not immediately, but to build an essence (I'm thinking abstract here) that allows us to be in constant contemplation and meditation with what the 'story' is.

The story is what we perceive to see or feel.  Tsai's formidable skill in making us feel this particular way, not emotionally in the grounded dramatic sense, but in a metaphysical sense, is something to behold.  That is the mark of his authorship.  He even goes to the extent of signing off with his signature before the end credits roll.

Stray Dogs is his art piece, exploring themes of poverty and hardship without the need for a story.  As one of the world's exponents of 'slow cinema', Tsai's film can sometimes be frustrating to see, like watching a snail cross a road, yet it is an interesting sight. 

He can hold a still shot with nothing much moving in the frame for a good ten minutes.  It is intentional but sometimes feels too excessive for its own good.  It is as much a cinema of minimalism as it is a cinema of excess.

Lee Kang-sheng's strong performance as an alcoholic father of two kids is our anchor point, and quite importantly so, as Stray Dogs is a film without any.  Shot in Taiwan, and evoking a quality of impermanence unique to Tsai's works, the film shows us that the longer a still shot is held, the deeper one becomes one with the characters, through their space and time.

Verdict:  Frustratingly deliberate in its pacing, yet one draws contemplation from the film’s unique stillness, all from one of the most formidable artists of ‘slow cinema’ of our time.


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