Since premiering at the Venice Film Festival in September 2013, where it won a prize, it’s taken over a year for Tsai Ming-Liang’s Stray Dogs even to get a screening in London (despite there having been two London Film Festivals in the intervening time), and just a one-off in an East London multiplex at that. I suppose this might suggest that potential distributors consider the film may be problematic to sell, and certainly it has all the traits that have marked the ‘slow cinema’ coming out of Taiwan since the 1980s (primarily films by Tsai and his compatriot Hou Hsiao-Hsien). Indeed the film even starts with a static shot of several minutes in length, showing two children sleeping while a woman sits beside them. And yet it’s a marvellous film that despite being slowly-paced and deliberately withholding a lot of information about its characters, exerts a fascinated hold over the audience (well, over me certainly) for its long running time. Even seeing the first half hour twice — the characters speak so seldom that it took the cinema that long to realise it was framed incorrectly, resulting in the subtitles being cropped off — didn’t loosen any of that hold, and in fact seeing the same slowly-paced near-silent sequences twice in a row without getting bored or antsy just made me more confident in the film’s artistry.
Trying to sum up what it’s about is a trickier proposition, not just because of the aforementioned lack of expository dialogue, but because of a somewhat perplexing narrative strategy, which seems to mix up different time periods with one another. If the woman (played by three different actors, as it happens) is the childrens’ mother sitting with them at the start, the next shot seems to skip back to a time when they are just living with their father (Lee Kang-Sheng), while intercutting scenes of the mother working at a supermarket while her kids lurk around. The father is working by a busy road holding signs advertising luxury condominiums in all weather; he lives with his kids in a dry corner of a derelict warehouse building, while shopping centre toilets provide a chance for personal hygiene. These characters are, by all standards, poor, and their living arrangements and alienation from society suggest that they are the ‘stray dogs’ of the title. At some point, the mother finds the father and the children, and the family are united. Quite what has got them to this place, or where they go from here, is sort of what the film is about.
I say “dry corner” above because the film — like all of Tsai’s films — is utterly suffused with dampness, whether it’s the severely (and picturesequely) water-damaged home the family occupy near the film’s end, pools of water on the ground, leaks from above, or driving rain outside. More than many of Tsai’s films, it’s about people adrift and unmoored, and along the way it provides a pretty concise portrait of modern society, specifically a sense of alienation — their difficulty in connecting with one another (and, perhaps, with the audience, not least thanks to the strategy of having three different actors play the ‘mother’ role). One of the most striking (and in many ways, disturbing) scenes, which plays into this, has the daughter ‘adopting’ a cabbage as a surrogate mother, which her father (while drunk, as he is rather often) comes home to find in bed. And several sequences, including at the film’s denouement, show the characters intently staring towards a painted landscape horizon.
It’s bleak, and it’s slow, but it’s almost hallucinatory in its intensity, and to my mind the narrative ellipses and obfuscations just make it all the more compelling. Despite not revealing the specifics of this particularly family unit, in many ways it seems to say something about family and connectedness and about the difficulties of forming those connections, and about all the ways they may go awry. Or perhaps I’m misreading it completely, and it all means something else. Whatever, it’s certainly a film to continue thinking about.
Director Tsai Ming-kiang 蔡明亮; Writer Song Peng Fei 鹏飞, Tsai and Tung Chen Yu 董成瑜; Cinematographers Liao Pen-Jung 廖本榕, Xin Lu Qing 吕庆鑫 and Shong Woon-Chong 宋文忠; Starring Lee Kang-sheng 李康生; Length 138 minutes.
Seen at Vue Stratford City, London, Tuesday 2 December 2014.