Near the middle of Stray Dogs, there is an odd, fairly inexplicable tableau that sums up, in its blackly comic way, much of the cinema of Tsai Ming-liang.
An adult woman (Lu Yi-ching) and a young girl (Lee Li-chieh) – many viewers will take them, by this point, to be mother and daughter – stand and shiver in the spacious freezer-room situated in the back of a supermarket where the woman works. Why do they bother to hang out here, in this inhospitable space? We’ll never know, and the answer does not matter.
Tsai uses the setting and the situation, as he often does, for a spot of performance art or action art; a ritual gesture is about to be enacted. And here it comes: the adult keeps trying to move closer to the child, as if to affectionately embrace her and offer some warmth (is this, indeed, why she has brought her small companion here?) – and the child keeps stepping away, to the side, as if resisting the offer. After some excruciatingly painful repetitions of this pas de deux, Tsai simply cuts to the next, narratively unconnected scene.
In his books on cinema, the philosopher Gilles Deleuze proposes something highly paradoxical about the films of Kenji Mizoguchi: approximately, he states that the director’s style, with its mobility, long takes and elaborate choreography of actors’ bodies in the mise en scène, shows that everything in world is connected – and yet, at the same time, fundamentally disconnected, unreconciled. Whatever we may make of Deleuze’s analysis of the Japanese master, it is certain that no filmmaker fulfils this philosophical vision today more completely or profoundly than Tsai Ming-liang.
“The structure of the film has no beginning and no end”, declares Tsai – placing Stray Dogs on the level of the various pieces of performance-theatre and installation art that he has pursued during his career. And indeed, the film gives the impression less of a scrambled plot, Tarantino-style, than of one that has been dreamt up in an agonisingly protracted fever. Certain figures, such as the characters of a father (Lee Kang-sheng) and his two kids (with Lee Yi-cheng as the boy), recur – we see them walk, eat, sleep, play on a shoreline.
Some incidents recur, and even develop somewhat: the father holds an advertising sign in the street, until he quits – but then carries the sign around with him for a little longer. Some settings change drastically, and without warning: the family settles and resettles in what appear to be various abandoned rooms and building sites across Taipei.
Stray Dogs is, in this sense, a shining example of the type of hyper-modern film that Jonathan Rosenbaum detected, embryonically, in certain sequences of Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep (1996): the film as an unconscious brain, in the process of conjuring or dreaming itself into existence, shard by shard.
Tsai has often played with reality-shifts and logic-leaps of this sort – although never so radically as in Stray Dogs. The ending of his apocalyptic musical, The Hole (1998), showed us a flagrant impossibility, a contradiction of the physical reality so relentlessly laid out in the preceding scenes: a woman being raised up to romantically join her man through a tiny gap in the ceiling. The beginning of What Time Is It There? (2001) evokes an apparition – of a man in his home – that can never be securely placed, in its temporality or its reality-status, in relation to all that follows. I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (2006) closed on a blissful, lyrical vision of its three central characters asleep on a mattress floating on water – which may be an image of collective death or, on the contrary, the redemptive fantasy of a dysfunctional society’s material detritus transformed, paradoxically, into its most luxurious comfort.
Stray Dogs pushes these sorts of essential mysteries much further. It could be used as a control test on viewers to determine how, and to what extent, they are conventionally compelled to forge coherent narrative links among the elements of any given film sequence presented to them. Even some of the world’s finest critics start making sense, plot-wise, where there is precious little of it in Stray Dogs.
Neither David Bordwell on his blog nor Yvette Bíró in Senses of Cinema (notwithstanding the immense usefulness of their analyses on other levels) appear to realise that there are three different actors in the mother-figure role (Lu, Yang Kuei-mei and Chen Shiang-chyi), one of whom is clearly older than the other two. Bordwell even mulls over the elliptical discrepancy that this character’s hair, at one point, is “cut shorter”!
For Bíró, various glimpses of this maternal figure are memory-flashbacks located within the mind’s eye of the father. As is always the case when the process of narrative comprehension goes to work on extreme cases (and I am as guilty as anyone on this score), these commentators manage to overlook situations or scenes that do not fit their particular reconstructions of what is happening, at any given moment, in the film.
The credit – unusual in Tsai’s cinema – to three screenwriters (including the director) gives a clue as to the film’s origin, and its particular working process. Tsai has related how the project began with a script sent to him, “about middle-age unemployment and domestic violence”. This resonated with him in terms of a sight he had long witnessed in the streets of Taipei: the ‘human billboards’ who held up advertisements in the street for hours on end, even in the most extreme weather conditions. From the that point, beginning from the basic sketch of a narrative situation involving an itinerant, homeless, broken family, Tsai’s aim was “get rid of the story” at every phase, all the way to post-production.
Yet Tsai’s own stated intention does not quite capture what really happens in the film itself. It is never simply a matter of negating or deconstructing the storyline, as in some Brecht-inspired campaign to shatter the illusion. Tsai’s cinema is, on the contrary, completely immersive in its emotional effect: we fully enter a world, no matter how radically discontinuous, from site to site and shot to shot, this world may be. (Tsai’s sense of a Situationist-style imaginary psychogeography here, more than in any of his previous films, rivals the surrealism of a David Lynch.)
It is easy to wrap the manifest content of Stray Dogs up with currently intellectually modish terms like precarity or bare life. Tsai achieves something more integral: this film about the pervasive social experience of unsettlement and dispossession completely unsettles and dispossesses the viewer at the fundamental levels on which she or he makes sense of what is seen, heard and processed.
It is a rich essay on belonging: what object or property belongs to anyone, and what two elements in a story ever belong together? Tsai’s cinema, for all its bleakness, emanates a beguiling, poetic aura of hope: if our world and its stories are all truly in ruins, he seems to suggest, then its pieces can belong to us all.
© Adrian Martin April 2015