What to make of a film that ends on a note of stillness so deep and serene that it comes closer to photography than what we usually expect of cinema!
Taiwanese out gay director Tsai Ming-liang’s “Stray Dogs” has a monumental quality that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible and heard on the best sound system available. In many of his lengthy scenes, the only form of motion comes from his characters’ breathing.
Unfortunately, the New York run of “Stray Dogs” is bound to be brief; the film will be lucky to last two weeks in commercial release. I’m sure it will eventually come out on home video, but unless you have a great home theater set-up, it’s really not suited to domestic viewing.
The problem isn’t just the film’s scope — it demands meditative concentration, not the kind of half-attentive viewing that has room for text messages and snack breaks. “Stray Dogs” requires a great deal of patience. Its rewards are great, but it pares away most of what we’ve come to expect from narrative cinema.
In Taipei, a homeless man (Tsai’s partner Lee Kang-sheng) works as a “human billboard.” Ironically, he holds up placards for luxury real estate at intersections. His two children (Lee Yi-cheng and Lee Yi-chieh) wander around alone, hanging out outdoors or killing time eating free samples at a supermarket. Lee has some sort of relationship with a woman; it’s never clear exactly whether she’s the children’s mother or how close she is to him. To make matters more enigmatic, she’s played by three different actresses. She works at a supermarket and sometimes comes home with Lee to the abandoned building where his family sleeps.
Tsai doesn’t like close-ups. The first camera movement in “Stray Dogs” comes around the 15-minute mark, and the first close-up arrives 23 minutes in. Most of the film’s scenes are long shots, often lasting several minutes. One goes on for more than 13 minutes. In lesser directors’ hands, this style can turn into self-parody, but Tsai’s framing is precise and poetic. He cuts to the bone. “Stray Dogs” runs over two hours, but there’s nothing inessential in it, despite the length of many of its scenes.
Poverty in cinema is usually depicted through some form of neo-realism. At Cannes last spring, some critics faulted the Dardenne brothers for casting Marion Cotillard in their latest film as a woman begging for her job, as if a beautiful woman can’t be desperate. (I bet they hadn’t seen her excellent performance as a beleaguered Polish woman struggling through New York in James Gray’s “The Immigrant.”) We tend to think the poor have no right to beauty, only hand-held shakycam and jump cuts.
With the greatest respect for its characters, “Stray Dogs” challenges all that. They may live in abandoned buildings, but Tsai finds beauty in unlikely places. One of those buildings contains a mural, which Tsai finds attractive enough to spend at least 10 minutes contemplating, in two separate scenes. At the same time, he’s aware that his spectators and his characters are likely to perceive their surroundings quite differently. A glimpse of a breathtaking beach for us is a dreary way to kill time for Lee’s children. “Stray Dogs” doesn’t try to resolve this dilemma, but it’s honest about its tendency to aestheticize poverty in a way that few art films — apart from the work of Pedro Costa — do.
Tsai has been heading in this direction for a long time. He got sidetracked with his last three films, beginning with the 2005 anti-porn musical “The Wayward Cloud,” which succeeded at being disturbing and not much else. His next two films were even weaker.
But most of Tsai’s work has explored how much a director can remove from a narrative film and still have something compelling. His bleakness remains, unrestrained by the wit that often makes his films go down easier. As usual in his vision of Taipei, it rains as much as in the LA of “Blade Runner.”
Tsai has never before dealt so bluntly with class. In fact, after the glory days of neo-realism, few filmmakers have. “Stray Dogs” finds an extreme beauty in the castaway people and places of late capitalism.
STRAY DOGS | Directed by Tsai Ming-liang | The Cinema Guild | In Mandarin with English subtitles | Opens Sep. 12 | Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center | 144 W. 65th St. | filmlinc.com