by Nick Pinkerton
Dir. Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan, Cinema Guild
Wherever you happen to be on the planet, playing human billboard is shit work. New York probably has more than any other city in America. You can still see the classic sandwich board out there, advertising eyebrow threading or “two suits for $99,” but there are also showier approaches. A favorite is the foam Statue of Liberty costume, usually saggy, ill fitting, and worn by an individual who might be described as “tired,” “poor,” or “wretched refuse.” It’s one of those ironies that, if encountered in art, would be deemed too obvious. (Once, around Christmastime, I saw a man in Times Square advertising free bathrooms sponsored by Charmin. He had, undoubtedly for a pittance, been persuaded to dress up like a toilet.)
Tsai Ming-liang, the Taiwanese director, was struck by the sight of a human billboard in Taipei, a man advertising real-estate deals clearly beyond his own grasp. The image stuck in Tsai’s mind, and in time it would provide the kernel for Stray Dogs, 55-year-old Tsai’s tenth feature. At 138 minutes, it’s among his longest. It’s his first shot on digital instead of film. And if interviews surrounding Stray Dogs’ premiere at this year’s Venice Film Festival are to be believed, it’s very possibly the last film that Tsai will make for cinemas.
As Stray Dogs is potentially Tsai’s final statement, why not start at the end of the movie? If you’re bothered by “spoilers” you probably shouldn’t read any further. I should say that I don’t believe that knowledge of the final scene will in any way reduce its plangency. No one entrusted with the distribution of Stray Dogs seems to think so either, because the film’s final image features on its poster. And Tsai, who has said of Stray Dogs that “the structure of the whole film has no beginning and no end,” would seem to care the least of all.
Stray Dogs concludes with two shots, both sustained considerably past the point of comfort. The first, a medium two-shot, shows a man and a woman standing in a dilapidated room, splashed with blue moonlight, looking at . . . something. She stares ahead intently. As she does, a tear rolls down her face, getting halfway down before it halts and dries. He is less focused, sipping steadily from an airline bottle of booze, finally moved to lurch into an awkward embrace with her. What are they looking at? We have some idea of what it might be from the shot sequence that’s preceded this, from the drop ceiling tiles in the background, some of them sagging, some of them gone. We’ve seen this abandoned building, those tiles, this room, and what it contains before. The next image, a medium long shot of the couple taken from behind and from an elevated vantage, confirms that this is the same place, that they are audience to the same image. On the far wall, which has approximately the dimensions of a widescreen frame, someone has drawn a seaside horizon. The black-and-white graffito depicts the rim of the ocean, a rocky shore, the forest line, mountains, and the sky above. Though the woman has seemed more engaged by the image, she is the first to leave the room. The man lingers just awhile longer, alone.
Tsai says that he found this mural, as we see it, while location scouting. Only some time later, Tsai claims, he discovered that it was one of many such works by the artist Kao Jun-honn. Working in charcoal and using the walls of derelict buildings as his canvases, Kao reproduced a series of photographs of Liugui in southern Taiwan and its indigenous inhabitants, taken by John Thomson, an Englishman, in 1871. “By placing the exhibition space in an abandoned area,” reads Kao’s “Work Description” for the Asian Art Biennial, describing this project, “the images would garner the potential to become backdrops and would thus take on more empty film set or theater-like qualities.”
How did this man and woman arrive at this impasse, staring at a wall in a makeshift “theater”? Via a very twisted road, full of dead ends and switchbacks. Preceding Stray Dogs’ opening title card, a woman combs her hair beside two sleeping children, a girl and a boy, maybe six and nine years old, in a dark, stained room. Soon afterward, we see the same two children (Lee Yi-cheng and Lee Yi-chieh), moving through a lush seaside park, seemingly as alone and unsupervised as Hansel and Gretel. The “mother” of the first scene will not appear again. Their lone caretaker is a man who is seen working as a human billboard, presumably their father. This family spends nights together holed up in a forgotten, disused hut made of corrugated metal. Every day, father takes his post on the same median, at the same intersection, buffeted by wind. While he takes his smoke and bathroom breaks in the same muddy lot next to the same stagnant pool that seems like it will never, ever drain, the kids roam a vast, immaculate modern supermarket, supping on noodle samples.
One day a woman working at the supermarket—it’s she who’s first seen visiting the mural—begins to take a keen interest in the children, an interest which seems almost like maternal recognition. She begins to follow them back to the hovel they share with dad. And on one torrentially rainy night, as he is preparing to load the children into a rowboat with an unknown destination in mind, she seizes her chance to intervene, swooping in to snatch the children and carry them away as the raging floodwaters carry their father off, abjectly wailing, in his unmoored vessel.
Everything goes black. The next tableau seems to expand outward from the glow of candles on a birthday cake. The man and his wards are together again, having mysteriously been reunited—or is this a flashback? There’s no celebration, despite the wrenching separation of the last scene, or the fact that the candles and the cake are for his birthday, as a woman sitting with the children explains. The bunker-like background of the scene is familiar. The same inky water damage that was visible on the wall in the first shot blackens every surface here. This bleak apartment was created by art director Masa Liu, in collaboration with Tsai; it looks like the sort of thing you might get if you hired Anselm Kiefer as your interior decorator. “The house started crying,” the woman says to the little girl, by way of explaining the sinister damp, “Can’t you see the tears?” This seems less like a lifestyle forced by poverty, though, than it does the chosen habitat of an eccentric aesthete—an impression strengthened when the father relaxes in an expensive-looking state-of-the-art massage chair. Was the dire deprivation of the previous scene a lifestyle choice? Slumming? Performance art?
The questions accumulate. How to explain the jarring leap, without narrative acknowledgment, between father separated from his children to father and children impassively reunited? Tsai’s casting further complicates any attempt to bridge these gaps and create a workable continuity. The father is played by Lee Kang-sheng, whom Tsai plucked out of an arcade to appear in his 1989 TV movie All the Corners of the World when Lee was barely 21, and who has appeared in every one of Tsai’s movies since. (The child actors are Lee’s actual nephew and niece, and Tsai’s godchildren.) The female roles are played, alternately, by Yang Kuei-mei (with the hairbrush), Lu Yi-ching (at the supermarket), and Chen Shiang-chyi (in the apartment scenes). Only one appears at a time. Every time a new actress replaces the last, the character is introduced in such a fashion that it’s impossible to gauge their familiarity or lack thereof with Lee’s character or the children. There is sufficient evidence to suggest either that they are all facets of the same woman, or that they are three different women altogether; there’s not enough evidence to prove either conclusion. Tsai’s own explanation is that, having suffered recent ill health, he feared that this would be his last chance to work with the actresses.
Whatever the case, this deliberate uncertainty keeps you perpetually off-balance, forcing you to fall back on your own resources to make sense of things, scrambling to construct your own narrative bridges to cross the ruptures between the first shot, the human billboard section, and the last sequence. I took the bookend sections to be flashbacks, the destitute single-father section as present tense, but I suppose a hundred people might have as many different interpretations. Relationships—within a scene, between every scene and that which comes before or after it, between the different “sections”—are constantly being called into question. The shuffling of actresses, the uncertain relationship between the chronology of the characters and the chronology of the film, work together to frustrate any comforting sense of continuity.
Stray Dogs is a disturbing movie, not only because Tsai denies us any period of relaxing cruise control, but because he piles one long take after another atop the viewer, as to impress a sense of the weight of time. In exacting detail, Tsai records the rituals of subsistence-level poverty barely clinging to dignity: the family bolting meals together during a stolen hour; the father overseeing his children’s toilet in a public bathroom; the children anthropomorphizing a cabbage into a doll, smearing it with lipstick and dubbing it “Miss Big Boobs.”
It’s mostly mundane stuff, but before the final standoff with the mural, there are a handful of scenes that might be described as events. At his post in the median one day, Lee abruptly breaks into song. Tsai has identified the words as belonging to the poem “Man Jiang Hong” (“A River Filled with Red”), attributed to a general of the Song Dynasty named Yue Fei. “My exploits are not but mud and dust,” Lee brays, “When will the grief of the Emperor’s subjects end?” Later, Lee’s character will return home to join his children in bed, the fact that he’s been drinking betrayed by his labored breath—the sort of sonic detail which one becomes ultra-sensitive to in this sensory-deprivation cinema. Reaching under the covers, he produces “Miss Big Boobs.” First considering the grotesque plaything, he next smothers it under a pillow, then brings it to his mouth to take big, fierce bites out of the raw cabbage, choking and bitterly crying as he does so.
Tsai’s conversion to digital has allowed him to extend signature long takes such as this beyond the limitations of a film reel, and to the very limitations of viewer endurance. There is, when speaking about Tsai, a tendency to note the duration of certain shots: six minutes! eleven minutes! twenty minutes! (I am not sure how other writers determine these numbers in the theater, short of stopwatch-timing every scene.) If the writer is panning Tsai, these statistics are used as evidence of his punishing excess; if applauding him, they’re cited in a way that recalls jam band fans enthusing over the length of solos. Suffice it to say that the long takes seem to last as long as they should, which is, for Tsai’s purposes, long enough to wholly submerge the viewer into the scene—or hold our head under.
Finding analogues to Stray Dogs in cinema is tricky, as Tsai, with his unadorned presentation of palpable human misery, seems to be distancing himself from the niceties of cinema. Because Tsai has given intimations that this may be his last feature, and because multiple actresses are platooned in what is possibly the same female lead role, a loose connection might be drawn to Luis Buñuel’s final work, 1977’s That Obscure Object of Desire. If we’re interpreting Stray Dogs as a willful cinematic epitaph, there’s a possible parallel to Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, which the Hungarian director pronounced would be his final film when he was in his mid-50s, like Tsai; and which also showed destitution in a light both grueling and sensuous. At least one allusion is obvious: when Lee is separated from his children, elements in the scene—the rowboat, the outstretched hands grasping menacingly for a child’s ankles, Lu embracing the children like Lillian Gish—come directly from Charles Laughton’s 1955 The Night of the Hunter. The title of Tsai’s film is very close to that of Akira Kurosawa’s 1949 Stray Dog, though Kurosawa’s film relies on ticking-bomb suspense of the sort that Tsai has dispensed with entirely. A more likely source are the literal stray dogs to which Lu feeds supermarket leftovers, while Tsai himself cites a passage referring to “straw dogs” in Laozi’s Tao te Ching as his inspiration. (I myself thought of a desolate song by the English band the Associates from their 1980 album The Affectionate Punch, “Even Dogs in the Wild,” which begins “Somewhere deep in the night/ There's a child on his own…” and continues that “Even dogs in the wild/ Could do better than this.” In one of those moments of free-associative serendipity, a visit to YouTube revealed that someone had already matched the Associates song to images from The Night of the Hunter.)
Tsai’s own films may offer the best key to unlocking Stray Dogs, for he has been obsessively rearranging the same handful of symbols since 1992’s Rebels of the Neon Gods. Foremost among these is water imagery, which seeps into the films through a number of runnels: those eternal downpours, ruptured plumbing, leaky ceilings, tears, piss. The battering rains which never seem to cease in Tsai’s Taipei have, like time, the power to erode, wear down—and with time, as Lee has grown from lost boy to thickset, ruddy middle-aged man, Tsai’s cinema has itself eroded. The trajectory of Tsai’s filmography has been an ongoing act of paring away. It seems difficult to believe today, but Rebels of the Neon Gods actually had energetic tracking shots. It had theme music! Catchy theme music! By 2004’s Goodbye Dragon Inn, however, camera movement and nondiegetic music were almost entirely absent. There have been digressions, like the spastic musical numbers in 2006’s The Wayward Cloud, but Tsai’s recent, experimental forays into digital indicate a new level of austerity. 2012’s 25-minute Walker, for example, features Lee, in the robes of a Buddhist monk, walking the streets of Hong Kong at a pace that would allow a tree sloth to motor pass him. (Followed by shorts No Form and Diamond Sutra, also starring Lee in monk garb, Walker now forms part of a trilogy.)
There are camera movements in Stray Dogs, mostly the equivalent of a slow craning of the neck, but make no mistake, this film represents an almost total rejection of narrative cinema, an abnegation of any but the most basic cinematic effects. This seems like conscientious dissent—obstinate slowness as an act of disobedience. “Is it forbidden to walk slowly?” Tsai recently asked, rhetorically, discussing hostile reactions to Walker, submitting that his work was “one way of reconsidering the rhythm of our life in today's society.” This “reconsidering” may also register as a protest, and Stray Dogs, in its way, is a protest film. It is a protest against “the rhythm of our life.” It is a protest against the degradation of poverty, and the degradation of the image. It is a protest against the prevalence of what-happens-next narrative that says art can be “spoiled,” of which the return to the popular serial form is symptomatic. It is a protest against cities that erect ever more buildings while letting others rot, and leave people to scavenge like dogs in the wild.
Tsai, who was born to ethnic Chinese parents in Malaysia and immigrated to Taipei at age twenty, has always had a rather complicated relationship with his national self-identification, but there’s reason to believe that today he feels more than ever a man without a country. His 2006 I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, shot in Kuala Lumpur, ran into trouble with Malaysian censors. At Venice, Stray Dogs was listed as a product of “Chinese Taipei,” for Italy doesn’t recognize the sovereignty of Taiwan. Perhaps, as evidenced by the song Lee sings in the film, Tsai has begun to self-identify with General Yue Fei. After successfully driving back Jurchin invaders from the north and retrieving much former Song land from the rival Jin Dynasty, the General was recalled to the capital and was murdered by a faction of his own people who preferred petitioning for peace to risking further strife and glory.
Now, most artists are to some extent polemicists, but when the polemicist begins to overtake the artist, the first thing to go is the sense of play. “All my films are comedies,” Béla Tarr told an interviewer while doing the rounds for The Turin Horse. “Sátántangó is a comedy. Lots of people are laughing. You can laugh a lot when watching it . . . But now we are not in the mood.” Tsai, in a recent interview, echoes this note: “I have tended to use classic Chinese songs I like or a little light-hearted and jovial song-and-dance number to transform the tedious, heavy atmosphere . . . there’s nothing like that in Stray Dogs.”
Tsai’s droll, frankly weird humor is missed here, but his abilities to compose images of shivering beauty, and to tap into rarified poignancy, have not left him. Both are felt especially in what I would call Stray Dogs’ final reel, if such things as reels existed anymore. This joins a number of sequences in Tsai’s films which ask us to watch watchers: Lee engrossed in a VHS of The 400 Blows in 2001’s What Time Is It There?, the audience watching the unseen King Hu wuxia in Goodbye Dragon Inn.
Feeling his mortality in advancing middle age, the creator will often takes a turn for the apocalyptic—especially if he was, like Tarr, inclined towards apocalypse to begin with. But while Stray Dogs is certainly tough going, if the images that conclude the film really are the last images of Tsai’s last feature, they must be counted as hopeful. In Tsai’s fallen world, his tired, poor, wretched refuse can ask for nothing more than refuge, silence and space enough to dream in and something better to dream of, a shrine to honor with their tears. In Stray Dogs, that shrine is the shore of a virginal Taiwan. For the rest of us who persist in a habit of staring at pictures on walls, Stray Dogs itself will do nicely.