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Stray Dogs

2013

Stray Dogs Poster
  • Tsai Ming Liang’s lastest film, Jiao you (Stray Dogs), winner of the Venice Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize (2013), was made after a long period of silence. One may feel that it is a sort of summary of what is so highly appreciated in all his films, their style and vision, the bold and excessively long takes, the sustained silence, the lean narrative and the sublime beauty – these immediately address the spectator.

  • The power of the director’s cinema lies in its aural and tactile quality — and that’s where we might find a hint of a meaning. If I had to find one word to describe Stray Dogs, it would be cavernous. There is no warmth to be found anywhere in the film. Even the one nice house we see is cold and vast.

  • Scene after scene drives home the difficulty of daily existence while also... making you appreciate the incidental beautiful sights and sounds that our busyness or our pain might otherwise cause us to ignore... This is the sort of movie that does not have what studio executives would call a pre-sold audience. It asks a lot of us; in fact it asks us to set aside what we've been conditioned to think movies are, and just roll with a different way of seeing and hearing things, and connect with it.

  • You don’t have to be signed up to the Tsai cause to appreciate Stray Dogs; it’s essential viewing if you’re interested in what cinema can do with time, space, fragmentation. It’s also a compelling piece of poetic realism: Tsai remains, along with Pedro Costa, cinema’s foremost painter of urban poverty... Personally, I found Stray Dogs as mesmerizing as anything Tsai has done, but not as satisfying as his best work...

  • The Chinese title of Tsai Ming-liang’s award-winning Stray Dogs is apparently “Excursion,” which is a dry description if there ever was one for the derelict existence endured by its woebegone characters. But, this being Tsai—an auteur with idées fixes that have stayed fixed for years—the title “Still Life” might serve just as well for a gorgeously designed film that’s equally a fascinating study of landscape, colors, and contours with a nearly sculptural texture.

  • Stray Dogs is in fact unlike Tsai’s nine previous features in one crucial respect: it does away almost completely with continuity editing. Most of its scenes are single shots, and there’s no causal link between one and the next. Some shots are so realist that they could have been taken with a hidden camera. Others are so stylized that they might well represent dreams.

  • This interior space is bizarre and dreamlike, an alien home, and throughout the film, Tsai restrains himself to certain kinds of environments: consumer palaces and urban ruins. The former conceal the existence of the latter, as if one were the guilty conscience of the other.

  • Stray Dogs is a film that accentuates inaction and duration as potentials for meaning. The contemplation of protracted, predominantly static shots are just as effective as Kuleshov’s montage effect in encouraging reflection beyond what we see in the image, addressing the ambiguity of the face and the stare.

  • There’s alchemy to what [Tsai] does, a way of combining stringent formalism and emotional heft in each composition that, I feel, even Antonioni was never able to quite capture. Perhaps it’s the more palpable desperation of the given milieu he’s working in, or the sheer primal power of his framing (a more innate cinematic sense is nowhere to be found), but Tsai’s films transform the world simply by turning the camera on it.

  • Tsai embraces the perplexing motionlessness of the digital image, its irritating depth of field, and color palette, and creates darkly alluring cinematic spaces and experiences like none seen before. The core of Stray Dogs is a vision of dispossession and exploitation—the perverse images produced by a society where too much is in the hands of too few.

  • The Taiwanese writer-director has long been a master of conveying loneliness—most powerfully, through cockeyed compositions that make contemporary architecture look like an alien landscape. Here he broadens his focus to consider the disconnect between the larger society and the people it neglects, and the effect is tremendous.

  • 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.

  • Stray Dogs’s severe emotional register is lent gravity and physicality by Tsai’s increased intimacy working with digital cameras. Not only has the director’s use of the technology further encouraged his propensity for durational workouts, but it has also brought him closer to his human performers.

  • Shot at weird angles and given a self-contained, claustrophobic quality, this second part is deeply unsettling in a way that the first part only hints at, but in recasting the pain and need for connection in a new context, it maximizes the poignancy of the earlier section, suggesting that even if the world were altered, the sadness and alienation would inevitably remain.

  • What appeared to be a straightforward family-of-outcasts melodrama—albeit with expected Tsai flourishes like Lee’s animalistic devouring of a cabbage that his daughter uses as a doll—suddenly turns thrillingly strange and surreal. Everything that came before is reoriented through this newly nightmarish prism, and the lengthy final two shots (each running more than ten minutes) rank with the best work this inimitable, essential artist has done.

  • [Stray Dogs] feels like a recalibration of Tsai’s predominant aesthetic and thematic tools after the reconciliatory discomforts of Face (2009)... Potentially representing both an arrival and a departure, Story of My Death and Stray Dogs seem destined to be considered amongst the year’s most substantial new works.

  • With Tsai Ming-liang's Stray Dogs, it takes no less than three shots and maybe two edits before you know – for absolute certain – that you're in the close company of a master filmmaker, a man who is in complete control of every detail of every frame he films... Every cut in the film offers a tonal jolt followed by some kind of visual/aural surprise. Tsai takes pleasure in this simple act of abrupt transportation.

  • With no momentum to speak of, “Stray Dogs” can devote its energies to its individual shots, which not only draw upon digital’s effectively limitless recording length but its extreme detail. Brian De Palma laments digital’s inability to properly light a woman’s face, but “Stray Dogs,” more than the hyperreal sheens of Fincher and Soderbergh’s work, shows off the technology’s potential for infusing the smallest details with a cinematic quality.

  • ...This is the rare marathon-length art film that seems to grow less oppressive the longer it goes on, thanks to the flood of empathy it increasingly provokes. The final scene is one of those all-or-nothing moments of transcendence... Even as I struggled to grasp the full significance of the image Stray Dogs ends on, the full force of its compassion bowled me over. It’s a fiercely humanistic movie.

  • As usual, Lee Kang-sheng’s genius is to be able to suggest interiority without much dialogue, through his body language. Yet, he remains an opaque presence. No back story, no memory, no explanation. He is a cypher caught in the eternal present of a city old enough to have post-industrial ruins, but trapped in a succession of moments that don’t add up – such as modern capitalism.

  • Telling the simple tale of a Taiwanese family's spiral into homelessness and despair, the film manages to be emotionally and intellectually engaging despite and because of its characters' teasingly suggestive backstory. It boasts one arresting image after another, its unusual camera angles showing people trudging through some of the most strikingly disorienting architectural or other spaces since The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and it's boosted mightily by Lee Kang-sheng's central performance.

  • Tsai's digital camera, while often holding its characteristically dry/wry distance, is now adventuring into closer and stranger places: incredible close-ups of faces are major highlights in the work, including a jaw-dropping, simple-as-pie long take of two faces at the end of the film, during which, for me, nearly the entire film re-played in my mind, and was re-evaluated.

  • Since the director’s preoccupations place him at a point somewhere between the theatrical feature and the gallery, what’s superb here is the striking of that balance. Dramatic images and startling compositions abound as much for their own sake as for their storytelling efficacy... Stray Dogs – named for the wild pack the mother feeds every night – is unforgettably vivid.

  • ...I feel digital cameras reveal different qualities, emotions, and connotations with how they represent faces with the veil of celluloid stripped away, leaving the texture of faces more vulnerable. Tsai takes full advantage of this, bringing out such an intensity of feeling from his actors. His camera dwells on them for minutes at a time, and it feels if he did so forever it would never cease resonating powerfully.

  • ...This nearly eleven-minute scene is a quintessential Tsai set piece, demonstrating his proclivity for dropping an isolated micro-narrative into his broader structure without regard for literal connectivity to the scenes around it. A prelude to the film’s nightmarish final act, it’s a scene that actually may only exist to serve as an antithesis to the rest of the film’s dramatic strategy...

  • There's an unquestionable finality to Stray Dogs. Even more so than The Wayward Cloud nearly a decade ago, it's difficult to take this film in and envision where the artist could possibly go next. Speaking strictly of its formal dimensions, we can truly say that Tsai's dominant tropes and concerns are pushed to an absolute breaking point in Stray Dogs.

  • Tsai goes a tad overboard here with the stasis, which twice becomes unproductively grueling in my opinion; reportedly, a full 27 minutes of the film is just people staring at that damn mural. (I'm okay with the cabbage.) His compositional sense remains as strong as ever, though... and I continue to groove on the bent for casual, integrated surrealism he's been working ever since The Wayward Cloud (though I guess one could argue that it really starts with The Hole).

  • In a scene that will inevitably constitute Stray Dogs’ major talking point, a distressed Lee Kang-sheng... maniacally tears an anthropomorphised cabbage to pieces, but it was the film’s penultimate shot, fixed on an obscure mural painted on the side wall of a derelict house, that left me truly haunted. There is much more to say about this immeasurably dense work, but it will have to wait until I have the opportunity for a repeat viewing.

  • From its sustained opening shot to the pair of stunners that close the film, Stray Dogs practically oozes melancholy, all unfillable voids and cryptic despair. Yet, for a director who has proven a master at balancing such emotions alongside a singular deadpan humor, this is without doubt--a few droll moments notwithstanding--his least funny effort, an aspect that threatens to render the film as a whole nearly oppressive in its bleakness.

  • If the first two-thirds offer more or less what you’d expect from a Tsai film, Stray Dogs shifts (through an appropriately dramatic thunderstorm) into dark fairy tale mode, with an intangibly creepy charge beyond lighting momentarily close to haunted house horror as the literal-seeming narrative dissolves into dreamy irrationality.

  • The penultimate shot goes on for so long it would have been impossible to film when film canisters (much to Tarkovsky’s famous frustration) could only roll for ten or twelve minutes. But Tarkovsky’s long takes induce a trance-like realm of almost histrionic perception. Here, the stillness feels like a punishment – for what, we don’t quite know, just as we never learn what so ails the father.

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