Stray Dogs review

Stray Dogs is the latest, and possibly last, feature by Tsai Ming-liang, famed director of ‘slow cinema.’ This film embeds the audience with a father, son and daughter as they all struggle to survive in Taipei. These three members of Taiwan’s underclass live a difficult, almost impossible existence, with the father, played by Ming-liang regular Lee Kang-sheng, earning nothing like a living wage from his job of holding a billboard by a busy intersection.

While this man may stand for hours in the blustering wind and driving rain, we only experience his suffering by the roadside for minutes at a time, and then through the remove of the cinematic form, but still it feels like an eternity. It’s viscerally a painful, gruelling and entirely unfair situation for a character who can’t even afford a home or food for his family, despite his hard work.

Ling-miang is reluctant to cut away and give us easy relief from what is occurring on screen. As the man is battered by the wind, holding a sign that wickedly advertises high price property, we are given the time – if not actually forced – to really consider what we are watching, and to dwell on its meaning.

This is slow cinema’s pacing used as a tool of socio-political confrontation, challenging an audience to stand close to the reality of a non-liveable wage and menial work. It’s no coincidence that this is also a job that could essentially be carried out by a block of concrete if it were not for particular legal implications.

Stray Dogs features a number of textured scenes that tell us a great deal about the central characters but there are three particularly remarkable sequences, each of them realised as a single shot with a locked-off camera, left to run for an extraordinarily long time and to build up a great deal of emotional weight.

In one we see a close-up of the father’s face, in contrast to the film’s typical, wider and somewhat disorientating shots of spaces with small figures within them, as he holds his sign and recites a poem.

In another, the father tearfully destroys a cabbage that has taken on great emotional significance for his children; and in the film’s penultimate shot, he reaches out for human contact from a woman. These three shots alone would tell a wholly compelling and incredibly moving story. Ming-liang has never been interested in exposition, but he’s right to trust his audience, and the detail and subtleties of his images, the performances and sounds, create meaning without ever labouring it.

There are moments in Stray Dogs which don’t live up to those three exceptional sequences. For example, one unbroken ten minute shot of a woman staring at a mural before squatting and urinating might feel to some like Ming-liang is… well, taking the piss. And I’m not sure that he isn’t. Many will no doubt be turned off enough by the film’s slips to dismiss the whole, but I think there really are only a few minor blips in this astonishing film.

The most resonant moments of Stray Dogs overpower its more frivolous scenes, and those willing to fully commit to the film will be richly rewarded. This is a challenging and emotional experience, filled with thought provoking imagery. I hope that Ming-liang’s announcement that Stray Dogs will be his last picture is one that he seriously reconsiders.

Stray Dogs is playing as part of A Nos Amours on Tuesday evening in London and will be released on Blu-ray and DVD in the US on the 13th of January.