Stray Dogs (Director: Tsai Ming-Liang): ‘Kinetic’ isn’t the first word that most would ascribe to the films of Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang, with their predominant aesthetic of static frames, long, long takes, and depictions of mechanically-performed routines and gestures, each distended past the threshold of naturalism and into a realm that’s closer to performance art. But such is the alchemy of this filmmaker that Stray Dogs, easily the most radically reduced distillation of his themes and formal approach to date, less narrative than temporal portrait, feels utterly charged with a sense of kinesis throughout.
The aforementioned alchemy, so elusive to pinpoint in earlier films, is also laid barer in Stray Dogs. Tsai’s tableaus, often captured in a single, static shot (with a few exceptions) tend to start in media res, the rhythm of the depicted process(es) well underway. The opening shot is an example; two children sleeping on a mattress on the floor of a decrepit, dimly-lit room, their mother sitting on its edge, slowly combing her hair. The metronomic snores of the children continue, but the rhythm of the hairbrush strokes tapers out, and the shot is held long enough that the tableau ceases to become representational, but rather an undulating magic-eye painting. Then a blinding cut to the base of a giant tree in daytime, in sharp contrast to the nocturnal urban interior. Much like the rest of the film, the juxtaposition between spaces of disparate ambience (roaring rainstorms, the hums and beeps of supermarkets, and often eerie, dead silence) is oddly bracing. For the faithful, the effect is kinetic indeed.
This is at once Tsai’s most straightforward film, but also his most mysterious – or rather, mysterious in its straightforwardness, especially coming after the self-reflexive house-of-mirrors that was 2009’s unfairly-dismissed Face. The sliver of story involves a broken, poverty-stricken family, in which the full scope of its brokenness gradually, glacially emerges. While Tsai’s human subjects in prior films were closer to spectral presences wandering through landscapes of urban decay, here his regular actor Lee Kang-Sheng is less ambiguously living in abject poverty, supporting himself and his children by holding advertising placards at a busy intersection.
The family’s estranged matriarch, meanwhile, haunts the surrounding environs as a more purely spectral entity. At one point, she explores an abandoned building at night with a flashlight, discovering a mural painted on a wall depicting an expanse of forest above a rocky lakeside. It appears roughly halfway into the film, and makes a reappearance in the film’s final scene, an agonised attempt at reconciliation between two ghosts, stretched seemingly as far as its actors can sustain their doleful, saturnine gazes (roughly 15 minutes). The mural is as enigmatic as that which decorated the swimming pool in Robert Altman’s 3 Women, and at first seems to suggest either a source of longing or nostalgia, but eventually, through sheer force of duration begins to represent nothing but marks on a surface.
Marks on a surface, life as the sum total of all banal, mechanically-performed routine, people reduced to their most baldly metabolic functions (pissing, eating, sleeping, crying, etc.)… if Tsai’s vision is so bleak, then why do I find his films and especially Stray Dogs so strangely life-affirming? Exiting the film, going from darkness into blinding outside light, I felt re-oriented and revitalized, with an uncanny sense of my own pace, obvious though that may sound. It’s not something that Tsai’s films haven’t offered before, though the sensation comes across stronger here. If this really is Tsai’s swansong, it’s as good a sign-out as one could expect; a frame emptied of transient bodies, with only an illuminated tableau left for us to project upon at will.