TIFF Review: 'Stray Dogs'

Potentially lost among the more high-profile retirement announcement of Hayao Miyazaki is a similar pronouncement from Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang, who spoke of his intentions to hang it up at the Venice premiere of his latest film. And as much as “The Wind Rises” summarizes Miyazaki, so too does “Stray Dogs” encapsulate Tsai’s career. Perhaps more so: Miyazaki’s latest exists as a slight stylistic departure that moves away from his intuitive fantasies into something of a standard overview biography, but “Stray Dogs” pushes Tsai’s cinema of laissez-faire long takes, performative observation and pangs of regret and loss to their extreme. As much as the recent work of David Fincher, Michael Mann and Jean-Luc Godard, “Stray Dogs” is an exciting display of digital possibilities, albeit in a far different way than the other defining works of the new format.

The extremities of Tsai’s first feature-length use of digital are a factor of time, not in the jumbled and complex manner afforded by modern editing capabilities and excessive coverage offered by inexpensive cameras but in the vastly expanded amount of footage that can be recorded on a hard drive. Shots in “Stray Dogs” occasionally stretch well past the 11-minute limit of a traditional 35mm film reel, typically focused on actors’ faces for so long that mundane action, or outright inaction, takes on cryptic, interpretative qualities.

That mysteriousness extends to the film’s story (for want of a better term), which opens as a series of vignettes involving a single father (Tsai’s regular collaborator Lee Kang-sheng) and his two young children, engaged in activities such as the kids jovially roaming forests and beaches while their father stands on street corners holding signs for apartment complexes. Well into the film, Tsai reveals that the family is homeless, recontextualizing the dull rote of the father’s job and the wistful truancy of the children into something more harrowing and desperate. This withholding of information turns a basic fact of the characters’ identities into a development instead of a foundation, moving “plot” along the z-axis in such a way that nothing ever pushes the film forward but a narrative slowly emerges through the clarification of literal and symbolic connections.

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. The film’s cinematography is so sharp that one can see a bowl of noodles still boiling even as it sits in the middle plane of a long shot, or watery mucus pooling and shriveling with each flare of Lee’s nostrils as the pressure of standing stock-still all day gets to him. As so many shots carry on for so long, these minuscule details become short, dramatic films unto themselves, with Tsai’s static takes and unadorned mise-en-scène nevertheless producing self-contained but interlinked actions.

The film’s second half, though, provides something of a departure for Tsai, taking place in a contained set that allows for more careful composition and more powerful thematic suggestion. The second half returns to the backdrop of its mysterious opening, a home that has decayed to the point of Abstract Expressionism: mold completely covers the walls in fungal stucco. Sooty material leaves permanent shadows everywhere, as if the building were far enough from a blast not to be leveled but close enough to be completely and irreparably singed, and white lines etched into the black in trickling icicle patterns complete the image of nuclear winter. The family dinner table even looks like a lacquered Pollock. The atmosphere is one of total devastation, filmed in low light that the digital cameras can render sharply, though one almost pines not to see so much of the setting with such clarity.

Tsai’s films have occasionally taken on the trappings of dreams, most especially in the ambiguous presence of the projectionist in “Goodbye, Dragon Inn,” but the back half of “Stray Dogs” plunges his cinema into the realm of nightmare. “Stray Dogs” even goes beyond the sense of loss that pervades Tsai’s other films, communicating not so much having lost something as never having had it in the first place. The interventions of the film’s women—a curious grocer (Lu Yi-ching) whose overstepping attempts to aid both literal stray dogs and the children link the characters to the title, and the lover (Chen Shian-chyi) who appears only at the start and near the end—both involve something being taken from Lee, but these almost seem like preventative measures designed to make sure nothing accumulates.

This year’s TIFF marked possibly the last time actual film will be projected during the 10-day event (one of the mere three features shown on 35mm this year, “La última película,” is itself directly concerned with the final days of celluloid), and the festival’s best films hummed with political anger or, in the case of the Miyazaki, the wistful resignation of a long career. Incorporating all of those traits, “Stray Dogs” may be the festival’s summarizing film. Yet it is also as exploratory and experimental as the most radical of the movies to be shown, and it is not for nothing than this established auteur’s potential swan song appeared not in the Masters programme but in Wavelengths. If this is where Tsai gets off, he – in his singular – quiet way, leaves cinema farther along than he found it. Not bad going for a film whose final half-hour consists of silently staring at a wall.

SCORE: 9.5 /10