Stray Dogs: Venice Review

'Jiaoyou' (Stray Dogs)

Director: Ming-liang Tsai
Cast: Lee Kang-sheng, Lu Yi-ching, Lee Yi-cheng, Lee Yi-chieh, Chen Shiang-chyi
In Competition

Jiaoyou focuses on a father, who earns a meager income as a human billboard, and his two children, who wander around modern-day Taipei and take refuge in an abandoned building.

Soporific or hypnotic? You decide.

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize in Venice, Tsai Ming-liang's latest is a non-narrative meditation on a poor family on the extreme margins of Taipei society.

VENICE -- The characters of Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs (Jiaoyou) spend protracted stretches of time in silent contemplation of a charcoal landscape mural in an abandoned urban space, which seems appropriate for an uncompromising work that is as much an art installation as a film. The director’s austere minimalism has always been suspended between the mesmerizing and the distancing, and in his latest feature, the concentration on elliptical observation, mood and texture signals an almost complete rejection of narrative.

Ever since he first emerged as a distinctive voice of new Taiwanese cinema two decades ago with Rebels of the Neon God and Vive l’Amour (the latter a Golden Lion winner in Venice), Tsai has been stripping away the standard conventions of film, increasingly so in recent years.

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize in Venice, this despair-drenched portrait of a stray family on the disenfranchised fringes of Taipei society may be his sparest work yet, speaking to devotees but unlikely to lure many fresh converts. As always, some will find the film’s unblinking intensity emotionally penetrating while others will dismiss it as taxing self-indulgence. The director confesses in the accompanying press notes to having grown weary of film, and while that’s not quite a declaration of retirement, Stray Dogs does have the feel of a melancholy farewell.

Tsai remains rigorously faithful to the aesthetic guidelines that have shaped his work -- extended fixed shots in which the smallest flickers of action unfold; minimal dialogue; isolated characters; settings of industrial decay or lonely wilderness; dense carpeting of elemental forces such as rain or wind; silences in which the noise of characters breathing, eating or sleeping becomes a quiet soundscape.

The main sound in the film’s opening shot -- held for close to four minutes -- is a woman languidly brushing her hair as she sits on the edge of a bed while two children lie sleeping. One kid rolls over, causing the woman to turn and look, but otherwise nothing happens. The space they occupy indicates a homeless family living in a derelict building, its walls streaked with the inky stains of flood damage.

It’s an arrestingly composed image, and an intriguing way into this depiction of marginalized lives. But the audacious stillness is a mere hint of what’s to come, with later shots held for 10 minutes or more. During the first Venice press screening, the stream of walkouts -- especially in the first 60 minutes or so of the film’s 2¼-hour running time -- added another sonic layer to the experience as folding seats kept flipping shut. (My seatmate made his exit muttering, “Sorry, but this is giving me deep vein thrombosis.”)

It’s almost possible to imagine Tsai welcoming this intrusion as an ironic extension of his cinema of alienation and ennui. Since the spectator’s gaze is an active participant in his films, maybe the spectator’s frustration is too. Watching Stray Dogs, you feel your brain unraveling, which can be good or bad.

The two siblings (Lee Yi-cheng and Lee Yi-chieh) spend most of their days alone, wandering outdoors or hanging around a supermarket where they eat food samples. Their father (longtime Tsai muse Lee Kang-sheng) works as a human signpost, holding placard advertising for a luxury real estate development at a busy city intersection. He takes a smoke break, skulks off into the overgrown bamboo to relieve himself, or stands in lashing rain, tearing up as he recites a patriotic poem in a six-minute sequence.

This is hardcore stuff even by Tsai’s own standards, its dilatory rhythms making considerable demands of the audience. Having the woman in the family’s orbit played by three different actresses (Yang Kuei-mei, Lu Yi-ching and Chen Shiang-chyi, all veterans of Tsai’s films) adds to the enigmatic puzzle; it’s deliberately unclear whether she is indeed one or more women, as is the exact nature of her relationship to the family. She figures most prominently as a supermarket worker who takes discarded meat to feed the stray dogs of the title that congregate in the rubble of an underground space.

Little is communicated in dialogue, but small details reveal that the kids’ father is a screw-up who can barely hold down even the lowliest job. He hands over his earnings to his son, presumably to stop him from spending the money on alcohol and cigarettes. In one dreamy interlude he walks away from his work location and enters a display home in the development he’s been advertising, falling asleep there in a brief escape.

By far the strangest -- and most strangely moving -- scene involves vegetable mutilation. The father comes home to find a cabbage that his daughter has painted like a doll in bed alongside the kids. Over almost 11 unsettling minutes, he embraces this crude effigy, then suffocates it with a pillow, then tears into it with his teeth and fingers, eating great chunks before weeping in anguish over what remains. Is this his children or their mother that he's destroying? The suggestion that he’s contemplating death as a better option for his kids seems apparent also in a scene in which he attempts to load them into a flimsy boat in torrential rain.

Stray Dogs certainly doesn’t stint on bleak poetry, and there are as many harsh, ugly images as beautiful ones. But an undercurrent of hope runs through the mournful film, notably in the uncomplaining resilience of the children.

The penultimate shot -- clocked at a marathon 13 minutes, 45 seconds -- observes the two adult figures as they wordlessly study the aforementioned mountain landscape mural. He takes a periodic sip of booze, she sheds a silent tear, they move into a tentative embrace. Like everything else here, that concluding episode will be widely discussed and divisive, with some hailing it as a virtuoso masterstroke and others as akin to imprisonment.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition; also in Toronto, New York festivals)

Cast: Lee Kang-sheng, Yang Kuei-mei, Lu Yi-ching, Chen Shiang-chyi, Lee Yi-cheng, Lee Yi-chieh, Wu Jin-kai

Director: Tsai Ming-liang

Screenwriters: Tung Cheng-yu, Tsai Ming-liang, Song Peng-fei

Production companies: Homegreen Films, JBA Production, in association with House on Fire, Urban Distribution International

Producer: Vincent Wang

Directors of photography: Liao Pen Jung, Sung Wen Zhong

Production designers: Masa Liu, Tsai Ming-liang

Editor: Lei Zhen Qing

Costume designer: Wang Chia Hui

Sales: Urban Distribution International

No rating, 136 minutes.