NYFF Review: Stray Dogs


Sometimes I’m torn between the thing itself and the idea of the thing. I may not enjoy a book, for instance, but I may like the bigger ideas that are explored in the text independent of my enjoyment of it. Similarly, I may not like a movie in the most basic sense of liking something, but I may admire what it’s trying to do aesthetically and intellectually. It”s like a clash between my gut reaction and my intellect: one interprets the art object itself (usually in the present) and the other is allured by the loftier aims the art object is getting at (usually in retrospect).

Stray Dogs is supposedly Tsai Ming Liang’s final film, and if so, it’s the refinement of his austere, long-take aesthetic. My gut and my intellect have tussled over this movie for the last few days. My intellect thinks Stray Dogs is painterly; my gut feels Stray Dogs is like watching paint dry.

And they both sort of agree with each other.

[For the next few weeks, we’ll be covering the 2013 New York Film Festival, now in its 51st year. Flixist will provide you with reviews, video, news, and features on some of the best films on the festival circuit. To check out all of our coverage of NYFF51, click here.]

Stray Dogs (Jiao You | 郊遊)
Director: Tsai Ming-Liang
Rating: TBD
Country: Taiwan
Release Date: TBD

I enjoy long takes and what they can do to the experience of a moment in a film (e.g., Bela Tarr’s seven-plus-hour arthouse epic Sátántangó). In some cases, like Children of Men, for instance, there is the sheer virtuosity of the long take when complicated actions and camera moves are involved; and obviously this is part of the reason Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is such a hotly anticipated film. We watch to be enthralled by the filmmaking — perhaps spot where cuts may have been hidden while pondering the complexity of the blocking — and to eventually get lost in the experience of the film. In a movie by Tarr or Andrei Tarkovsky, the long take functions to enthrall but also to call attention to the way an image can transform if it’s held long enough. Available light may subtly or gradually change, the movement within the frame may reveal a new mood a few minutes into the take that wasn’t readily apparent at the beginning, or the sudden disturbance of wind and other natural elements on the landscape can become a phenomenological and aesthetic experience — the intellect says it’s just noticed the windness of the wind; the gut, which is its own kind of intellect, shivers at the awe of the received image which presents something natural in an artistic way.

In Tsai’s films, the same ideas are going on, but his work is more alienating and definitely an acquired taste. His concerns center more on the imagery and what the long take conveys about a given situation. Traditional concerns about narrative are secondary. Though it’s been ages since I’ve seen it, I remember liking Tsai’s 1998 film The Hole, and the same goes for his 2003 film Goodbye, Dragon Inn. And yet there’s something about Stray Dogs that kept my gut and my intellect in a constant struggle, and I have a feeling it’s less about the 138-minute run time than some other things going on in the movie.

The film is a portrait of a family in dire straits. The father (frequent Tsai collaborator Kang-sheng Lee) works all day as a human billboard. His son and daughter aren’t in school and instead wander a supermarket, sustaining themselves on free samples. The mother was once present but is now absent. It’s all lower-class plight and the struggle to survive, as if these three cast-offs are like the eponymous stray dogs that make brief appearances in the very loose narrative. In the long takes, the audience gets to participate in the ennui of the characters, but at a certain point, this ennui belongs more to the audience.

I think the main reason that Stray Dogs felt so distancing to me has to do with the nature of some of Tsai’s shots. All of them are wonderfully composed and faultlessly lit. There’s an interesting play of color and line in many of his compositions, whether it’s the haunting black and white squiggles and rips in a severely rundown apartment, or the vertical reeds that barely conceal the father pissing during a break. In some of the early shots and later shots, the takes enthrall and are all about transformation. The second shot of Stray Dogs is simply of a tree and its roots, which are quite picturesque, but as the children enter the shot and slowly pass the tree, there’s a sudden sense of scale — I’d initially perceived the tree as much smaller, but the children are completely dwarfed by it. There’s something interesting about this game of perception of images and actual nature of the image.

Even a shot when the father is simply holding a sign on the island of a busy roadway has a way of transforming. His fluorescent rain poncho flaps in the slipstream of passing cars. Save for some shivering in the cold, he’s a portrait of stillness, communicating his routine for the day. And then suddenly as traffic opens up, like colors reticulated in a painting, I noticed in the background so many other human billboards also in fluorescent ponchos. Here was the man alone and anonymous, and here were other men, a brotherhood of misery, joined in the same fate. The shot is repeated with variation in order to further convey the soul-crushing nature of his job, and when we return one last time to the father, it’s his face in close-up as he sings a song about mortality and evanescence while he weeps at his own indignity.

When Stray Dogs presents images of such artistry, my gut and my intellect were in agreement. The acts of tiny dynamism take up about one-half to two-thirds of the film’s shots. The remainder of the film seems too static by comparison. One shot holds on the father as he eats a chicken thigh and rice. The only change is noticing a few flecks of flesh and skin cling to his shirt. Yes, it’s an allusion to the strays feeding on scraps, and yet the information  feels obvious, un-noteworthy, tautological instead of transformative like many of the best long takes are. A similar shot of a woman gazing at a mural of a mountain provides captivating stillness but then becomes distancing stillness. While the woman is probably having a transcendent experience gazing at the mural, I couldn’t help feel like a voyeur of the banal; my own experience is so detached from the character, creating two independent perceptions of time and aesthetic experience. That’s a great idea in retrospect, but experiencing the moment in the present was mind-numbing.

This is where my gut and my intellect have their split. My intellect wants to find something to like about Stray Dogs, and there are plenty of philosophical footholds there that it can latch onto in terms of the film being about the experience of watching it. It’s an idea readily apparent in Goodbye, Dragon Inn, and also apparent in Stray Dogs given a moment in the film’s final third that feels like a riff on Night of the Hunter. And yet my gut says that while there’s something to chew on in the ideas of the film, the experience of watching Stray Dogs was ultimately not as satisfying or gratifying as the act of thinking about it. In other words, it feels as if my entire evaluation of Stray Dogs has mostly become a rambling mess on the experience of thinking about the experience of Stray Dogs — all levels and sub levels, all telescopic distances; myself writing about myself watching a woman looking at a mural. And then she squats and pees. Why? I really don’t know.

Though unexpected, it’s nowhere near as jarring as a memorable scene in which the father finds a simulacrum of a woman in his bed with a cabbage for a head. He proceeds in an uninterrupted take to weep and to eat and to destroy the cabbage. The intellect pieces this moment together as a metaphorical entryway into the psychology of the father, of an unspoken backstory that reveals what happened to the absent mother, and unlocks this painful portrait not just of the failure of his masculinity but also an unresolved hatred for women, whether they’re mothers, sisters, daughters, or wives. And yet the hatred is also a kind of passion that wishes to consume and become one with a presence that’s no longer there — it’s the attempt to nourish loneliness with an idea of a person rather than the actual person, and that is such a resonant melancholy note.

My gut, on the other hand, was struck by the absurdity of the image, transfixed less by the power of the metaphor and more by the silliness of the simulacrum and the histrionics of the performance. Sure, all the heady stuff, yeah, yeah, but the gut summed up the moment with a dumb pun: “voluntary coleslaw-ter.”

The penultimate shot, which is 14 minutes long, has a strange feel to it. There’s suspense initially, and then there’s dread, and then at a certain point the dread drains away and becomes puzzlement and then confusion. I went from wondering what would happening next to why wasn’t anything happening. The occasional passing of an elevated train in the background was more exciting than the characters in the foreground. Maybe that was the point. Was it?

It’s been said that many avant-garde works of art are less about art and more about the philosophy of art, but I don’t think that this sort of pronouncement is quite fitting for Stray Dogs. I like it for some things, I don’t like it for others; I like other Tsai films better, though I like many of the shots in this film; some of the long takes are excellent cinema, others are like the antithesis of cinema. It’s always boring yet it’s always gorgeous.

There’s a shot where the father walks along a path in the shape of a lemniscate — a figure eight, an infinity symbol. There are times the film feels like it was going on forever, and the same goes for my irresolvable thought process about this film. I can write on and on, but I can’t get any closer to figuring out why the film resonated at times but then also feels like it completely missed the mark.

My intellect and my gut continue to go back and forth, but we can come to a few agreements for now:

  1. Even though it’s beautiful, Stray Dogs is a work of art that’s probably not for you, or for most people, really
  2. There’s a patience required for Stray Dogs that calls for full attention rather than passivity, and a basic grounding in post-structuralist thought and continental philosophy is helpful
  3. Writing about Stray Dogs made me appreciate it more because there are images in it that I can’t simply dismiss; or if not the film, I can’t dismiss the idea of Stray Dogs
Clip: Stray Dogs, "Tears" (NYFF51)

Alec Kubas-Meyer: There’s a very real chance that nobody edited Stray Dogs. I feel like maybe that on each shot, Tsai Ming Liang shouted “Action,” then the camera started rolling, and it stopped rolling immediately before he said “Cut.” Then some of the shots were put in an order that almost gives some sort of sense of narrative. Not all of them, but a few. Unfortunately, it also seems like Tsai Ming Liang would wander off set for some shots, maybe go buy a sandwich, maybe go buy a sandwich shop, and only shout “Cut” when he was done with his business. That’s the only scenario I can envision in which a nearly 14-minute-long static shot of two barely emotive faces could get put into a film. Otherwise, it means that the editor thought that they were making something brilliant, and Tsai Ming Liang thought that 14 minutes of soul-crushing boredom was the best way that he could convey something.

Did I say 14 minutes? I meant to say 138. Stray Dogs is basically a really nice art book that for some unknown reason has the ability to “play” each of the pictures. For about a minute, this is oftentimes interesting, and it’s almost always gorgeous, but even as it continues to be gorgeous, nothing is added to the second, third, fifth, tenth, thirteenth minute. It’s just that photo, except there’s some wind in there. Maybe a few lines of weird dialogue.

Now, to be fair, there are a few moments with action, but they’re so drawn out that I don’t even know why anyone bothered. Played at 10X speed, I think this would be legitimately worthwhile film. You wouldn’t get much out of it, but it’d be nice to look at and would last about the same length as its unacceptably long penultimate shot. But as it is? No. This thing seriously needs to be sent back to the cutting room floor. 40 — Sub-par

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.