I'm still very early on my my Tsai Ming-liang viewing so perhaps it was inadvisable to start my exploration of his features with his 'final' film Stray Dogs, but I liked it a lot despite finding it really challenging. And I guess that, after all, every journey begins with a single step!
I would basically agree with Jonathan Rosebaum's essay about the film in the Cinema Guild disc. I had also noted some that the film seems to have a seemingly achronological sequence of events. Are we seeing the action, such as it is (maybe 'vignettes' could be a better term?) in cause and effect order or have they actually been jumbled up? Or is there something even stranger or complex going on, especially regarding the female character? Is the film maybe slipping from a present day existence to scenes of a past relationship, and going back and forth?
This really seems not to be a film for anyone fainthearted about 'slow cinema'! I was amused remembering back to the recent flurry of articles accompanying the rerelease of Antonioni's L'eclisse in cinemas, often emphasising the slowness and supposedly inexplicable nature of that film! Stray Dogs is probably twice as slow, and the daunting aspect of this for me is that it pushes this style even further beyond Antonioni and even beyond Tsai Ming-liang's Walker films which at least include normal speed action surrounding and even necessarily contrasting against the slower central characters. There are a few sequences of that in Stray Dogs too (holding the signs against the passing traffic, at least until the close up cuts all of the extraneous surrounding world out of the film, or the way that the environmental conditions sway grass or throw rain into the character's faces), but many actually go even further than this by actually slowing the action down into almost static motionless tableaus for minutes on end.
These images almost dare the audience to check if the film has not just been paused, or whether the disc hasn't gotten frozen in the player and so on! Yet there are movements there (there is even a discernable story being told in segments that the audience can piece together, though it is probably the most challenging viewing experience that I have had in some time!), in which we watch tears form in a character's eyes or the characters slowly move through a scene, or brush their hair, usually stopping still for an extended period of time (in contemplation?) before turning to leave a scene, walking away seemingly unfulfilled and unsatisfied with the attempt. Though that may be my imposition as a viewer!
A number of key scenes centre around a painted mural in a ruined building, and it is almost as if the characters are mesmerised by it; or are trying to find some meaning within the image of a rocky landscape (matching the rubble strewn floor); or are trying to even inhabit inside it instead of the world that they are in; or even are trying to stare the unmoving, unchanging image down to see who will blink first, the human being or the art they have created. No matter how long we focus on it, there is always going to be the inevitable disappointment of having to leave that art behind again. Perhaps it is more fulfilling to turn the camera around and spend the time watching the characters looking instead, as we see them respond physically (this film does little to change the adage that Tsai made in Mark Cousin's Story of Film series that “I often film people drinking water. Then they either cry or piss. Bodies are containers, but also for emotion”! This time the director is applying it as much to the architecture as to the characters!), and unpredictably to an image that is monolithic and unchanging, or rather changing, in terms of decaying, in an achingly slow manner.
The following is going to devolve into tons of unanswerable questions but this was my wider impression of the film. In trying to piece together the story it seems to be about a family living in marginal spaces (sleeping in ruined buildings, eating on the streets and washing in public toilets; working as human billboards; wandering around shopping malls and through woods; etc) but the female figure is strangely absent, or rather appears to have been split into three (and as noted by Rosenbaum in his essay, perhaps is the same character split into three actresses) Is this meant to be the same person, or are we seeing different women in the lives of the man and his two children? Is the woman in the first scene who is brushing her hair and sadly watching her children sleep their mother? Has she abandoned them?
The children go on to 'build' a new mother with a cabbage and some clothes in another scene. Are they just playing, or trying to make up for their lost mother? They don't seem to be playing sadly, and instead are joking about the size of the doll's boobs! Then the father in another separate scene finds the doll, playacts smothering it to death with a pillow, then rips the cabbage head apart and eats it while sobbing. Is he angry at the woman for leaving? Did he kill her and is re-enacting it? Is he just very, very hungry?
Is the man even then the children's father? Why does the woman from the supermarket who the girl follows and who then cleans her up in yet another public bathroom, then follow the children and 'rescues' them from the father's boat, leaving him to drift away into the night while desperately calling their names? (Is this a scene homaging The Night of the Hunter or at least in the same fairytale vein of children observing inexplicable adult behaviour?)
And why after this do we see scenes of the family seemingly together again in a different (albeit still dilapidated) house with another woman. Is this a flashback to relatively happier times? To return back to the mural, was this a significant location in the relationship of the man and (any one of) the women? Is that final scene when he finally stops staring at the picture and leaves the room empty apart from the mural (and the audience staring at it still) Tsai's own Antonioni homage?
It is a very challenging film but extremely beautiful in its imagery. Perhaps the best thing that I could say about it is that I watched the film on a Friday evening and decided to leave the disc running in the machine to play continuously (thankfully the Cinema Guild disc plays in a loop after spending 20-30 minutes on the static menu screen) in the background of the entire Saturday! For the whole day I have been catching images again from various scenes, and sometimes coming to my own halt to watch the screen for a couple of minutes before moving on with various household chores. Which might be just as rewarding a way to rewatch this film!
Last edited by colinr0380
on Sun Oct 25, 2015 6:41 pm, edited 7 times in total.