Directed by Tsai Ming-Liang
Written by Tsai Ming-Liang and Song Peng Fei
Tsai Ming-Liang has built a reputation for himself as one of the foremost artists of contemporary cinema. His work is often lauded for its challenging ideas, careful pacing, and incredible compositional sense. His newest film Stray Dogs (rumoured to be his last) is about an alcoholic father and his two children struggling to survive in Taipei. Blending stark realism with elements of fantasy and absurdity, there is little doubt that this is one of the most unique films of the year, offering a singular vision of the world.
Ming-Liang stands above many of his contemporaries working with long takes and elliptical storylines through the strength of his compositions. There is a lot of power in the way he places his camera, almost confrontationally, to forcefully engage the viewer with subjects who often face the lens directly. There is an intimacy here that challenges traditional concepts of cinematic realism by allowing the characters to break the fourth wall, if only through the power of their gaze. Ming-Liang’s legacy lies in the compositional works of Ozu, who similarly broke down traditional concepts of framing to achieve what, can only be described as an intimate domestic vision of the world.
The film opens in a mysterious room badly damaged by mold and water. Two children sleep in a bed and a woman sits at the edge of the mattress brushing her hair with forceful deliberation. We are presented with a strange version of a family, one that seems out of touch with ideas of comfort or home. It is almost horrific. The shot is held for a long time, and is bewildering as it is enchanting. It perfectly sets up the stage for the mysterious nature of the rest of the film, while also setting the pace. We don’t return to this location until later, and its re-introduction is appropriately jarring. Sequences like these suggest an alternative version of events to the ones that seem more grounded in reality, presenting a new layer of intrigue to the film’s portrait of poverty, survival, and family.
The levity in which Ming-Liang is able to present his characters is the essential ingredient that allows this film to transcend the egoism of aggrandized and patience testing cinema. The detailing of the little girl’s cabbage friend in particular, standing out as an essential detail that lends personality and charm to the proceedings. Much like the work of Bela Tarr, which thrives on repetition and the passage of time, this is a film that is rewarding only to a chosen few, a dangerous gamble of artistic elitism. The emotional power of this work is not universal, and in its specific appeal, its champions will scream its praise from the rooftops. This is not a means of questioning Ming-Liang’s integrity as an artist but perhaps reflecting on larger questions that plague and haunt film criticism in the contemporary era.
A film like Stray Dogs is not for a mass audience. It is a personal work and a vision that challenges the status quo. Its impact will vary wildly and will leave many people puzzled and frustrated. There is a certain level of peer pressure that maintains universal praise for a film of this kind. Though it is difficult to disregard the craft and skill that goes into creating a film like this, the truth is, it offers very limited appeal and will only be transcended for a small group of people. The question of how exactly a writer is meant to approach this film is difficult, without feeling the magic of Tsai Ming-Liang’s vision there is little left but a beautifully crafted collection of images and ideas that work conceptually if not emotionally.
— Justine Smith