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.
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.
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 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
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