Stray Dogs is a movie of harsh cuts and even harsher compositions, a film in which the camera doesn’t seem to record so much as stare, peering at scenes of social decay and silently suffering laborers as if demanding someone to take action. Those familiar with Tsai Ming-liang’s endurance-test cinema will know of the director’s penchant for long takes on impassive faces, but his latest feature is so spartan that it becomes experimental, a film comprising nothing but the most concrete details that is nonetheless abstract.
Tsai’s regular collaborator Lee Kang-sheng plays a homeless single father who, by day, ekes out a meagre living by standing stock still at traffic intersections holding a sign for nearby condos. His occupation recalls the movie-theater advertiser in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s seminal short The Sandwich Man, albeit updated for a consumerist Taiwan fully in the sway of late capitalism, where those without homes are paid by property owners to sell apartments they could never afford on their pitiful wages. It’s a blatantly political setup, but Tsai fleshes out the rhetoric with silence, training his camera to gaze at Lee as he is buffeted with wind and rain. Long shots of Lee’s daily routine connote misery, but the agony on the actor’s face is most deeply felt, of course, in close-up, where it becomes difficult to distinguish rain splattering his cheeks from tears of exhaustion and shame.
Tsai’s protagonists have always yearned for things beyond their physical and economic grasp, but close-ups on Lee’s sunken, hollow eyes as he devours a meal with eerily detached voraciousness trade the romantic longing of earlier films for simple biological need. Stripped of everything but instinctual care for his children, the father even manages to infect the kids’ optimism with the weight of his sadness. In the most haunting scene, he returns home to find a cabbage with a painted-on face, his daughter’s makeshift replacement mother, and he uses the avatar to expunge his feelings over his long-departed partner. Lee alternately kisses, caresses, attacks, and consumes the head as several different forms of hunger manifest in a pas de deux of self-loathing that ends with Lee in wracked sobs over all that he’s lost.
Such scenes are devastating, but their strangeness also rescues the film from being mere polemic. As severe as Tsai’s direction is, unorthodox camera placements and locations regularly break Stray Dogs of strict realism. The film frequently returns to a supermarket where a manager (Lu Yi-ching) takes pity on Lee’s children, and it’s there that Tsai regularly films from inside display freezers, with the added prism of frosted glass turning shoppers into specters, as if everyone in the building were a ghost doomed to live out their banal lives of consumption for eternity. A scorched-out home where the family occasionally takes residence is a desiccated nightmare, black walls etched with varicose veins of peeling white paint that looks like streaks of mold or bird shit. It’s a nightmarish perversion of comfort, more terrifying than a total lack of shelter.
The centerpiece, however, is a dilapidated building where human strays gather. Rotten ceiling tiles hang over where people gather, and a large, curved wall of glass-less windows gives the impression that the place used to be a club of some kind, long-forgotten and slowly reclaimed by nature. As undeniably suggestive as the setting is, easy interpretation soon evaporates when the film settles in for a shot of two people staring at a mural in that dystopian ballroom that lasts more than 10 minutes of subtly modulated emotions and tacit communication between two bonded strangers. At that moment, any rhetorical insistence is lost to the simple yet insolubly complex emphasis of Tsai’s most enduring idea, that of the profoundly cinematic, forever unknowable depths of the human face.
Tsai Ming-liang utilizes digital as much for its capacities of shot duration as any economic or visual benefit, but any isolated frame from the movie looks gorgeous, and Cinema Guild’s disc flawlessly reproduces the video. Check out the detail captured in overhead lights reflected on glossy food-court tables, or the tangibility of the ripples in the aforementioned house. Some things I remember from my theatrical viewing, like snot pooling in Lee’s nostril in a close-up of him standing in cold wind, or visible steam rising off a ramen bowl in the background of an extreme long shot, are lost, but those are issues of scale, and Cinema Guild’s disc looks as good as anything as I’ve seen on home video in months. Audio is also excellent, with the film’s deep aural field of street sounds, store muzak, and silence offering a subtle test of one’s speaker layout.
The disc comes with footage (including film excerpts) of Tsai’s hour-long master class at the Cinematheque Française, during which he offers charmingly accessible interpretations and observations of his work. Even his early icebreaker of warning attendees to go to the restroom during the talk and not the screening, reveals something, as when he notes that even if you leave and return during the course of the same shot, the microscopic variations of performance and tone that occur during that shot can send the film in a new direction. Cinema Guild also includes a trailer and a Jonathan Rosenbaum essay, but the crowning extra is the vital inclusion of Tsai’s masterful short Journey to the West, a continuation of the director’s "Walker" series (in which Lee plays a peripatetic monk who traverses the world in slow motion). Co-starring Dénis Lavant, the short contains all the reflective imagery, breathtaking poetry, and evocative street ambience of the main attraction. It may, truth be told, even be superior to the film it accompanies on this disc.
Tsai Ming-liang’s elegant, unflinching new feature is perhaps his greatest work to date, and with an equally masterful short film included in the package, Cinema Guild’s Blu-ray is a must-own.