Physical contact is a rare thing in Tsai Ming-liang’s films, often existing, when it does at all, in the alienated character of monetized sex. Across a landscape of a more-or-less apocalyptic version of contemporary Taipei (and further afield in some recent works), the director’s characters have been wandering endlessly, aimlessly seeking human connection for over two decades now. Thus, when Tsai’s figures do touch skin with something like genuine feeling (the pair of doomed lovers with their futile embrace in a flooded apartment in Rebels of the Neon God, Lee Kang-sheng pulling Yang Kuei-mei up through the gap between their apartments in The Hole, and, depending on your perspective, Lee Kang-sheng shoving his cock in Chen Shiang-chyi’s mouth at the end of The Wayward Cloud), it seems almost miraculous, a moment of, if not transcendence, at least a temporary respite from a world mightily thin on hope.
In Stray Dogs, the director’s latest masterpiece, that moment of fleeting connection is all the more striking for occurring, in the film’s penultimate shot, after an extraordinary 10-plus minutes of stasis. Tsai locks down the unnamed couple played once again by Lee and Chen as they stand a few feet apart, both facing forward in the ruins of their decimated apartment building as night turns to day outside and the boozy Lee sneaks sips from a minibar bottle of liquor and tears drip from Chen’s eyes. When Lee comes forward for a brief embrace before Chen breaks free and disappears, it’s a startling gesture, an unexpected breaking of stillness that represents a last-ditch effort from a character who knows he’s condemned to solitude or worse, to make one final meaningful connection.
It’s also one of a series of remarkably affecting images in a film whose strategy of employing ultra long takes and generally affectless performances promises little more than chilly distance. But this trick is nothing new for Tsai, who regularly conjures such moments out of his observational minimalism—spliced, increasingly in recent years, by odd surrealist intrusions. What characterizes each subsequent Tsai film is a further move away from the relative innocence of his early efforts when the Hsiao-kang character, played in each movie by Lee, was a disaffected young adult still living with his parents. Following the subjection of that character to increasing forms of sexual alienation, Tsai had seemingly reached an endpoint in that line of exploration, causing him to shift geographic and economic boundaries to provide a portrait of foreign workers in Kuala Lumpur living on the edge in 2006’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone.
With Stray Dogs, Tsai returns to Taipei but instantly plunges us into a world at least as down-and-out as that of his Malaysian-set film. After slowly introducing the relationships between various characters, Tsai reveals that a man (Lee) who makes a (presumably barebones) living holding up signs at busy intersections resides with his two young children in a barely there squat and that his family has to make do with such realities of homelessness as washing in public bathrooms. While the father is out plying his trade, the kids hang out at a local supermarket, which in stark contrast to the greys of Taipei, is shot in an eye-bleeding neon which suggests something of a wonderland for the youngsters. They’re tentatively looked after by a woman at the grocery (Lu Yi-ching) who helps them get free samples of food and whose relationship with both the kids and their father remains ambiguous.
If these gestures of human kindness are few and far between in Tsai’s films, one thing that’s considerably less rare are outbursts born of long pent-up anger and despair. Although the children provide the film with moments of lighthearted play, and while the Lee character’s particular form of anguish is never definitively specified, Stray Dogs is all about that man’s mental and emotional woes, which suddenly seem deeper and scarier than those of any other character the actor has played for Tsai—perhaps, in part, because the welfare of children is at stake. This psychic pain finds expression in his sometimes ill-treatment of his kids, and in at least two remarkable sequences, unlike anything quite else even in the works of Tsai, one involving the Lee character’s tearful rendition of a Southern Song Dynasty poem while he holds his sign in the rain, and the other his booze-fueled destruction of a doll made of cabbage which his kids have constructed.
The constituent parts of this last scene—the bursts of tearful anger, the desecration of a food item—are nothing new to Tsai, but the fearsome intensity of this moment marks a new peak of emotional devastation in his work. The scene also leads narratively to a startling disjuncture, a rain-set escape-and-rescue sequence which fades to black and resets the film’s world, recasting it in slightly altered terms. The exact relationship between the film’s second act and the first act remains unclear, with part two either positing an alternate universe recasting of the initial scenario or serving as a sort of prequel to what we’ve just seen, but it spins out a new setup that jettisons any pretense of realism that the first act pretended to in favor of a slightly daffy, relentlessly dejected, array of circumstances.
Transported to a less makeshift abode, a ruinous but nonetheless livable apartment whose beautifully black-and-gray streaked walls are, per one character, the result of the building’s tears after a heavy rainstorm, we now see the Lee character and his children living together with their mother (Chen Shiang-chyi). The horrors of homelessness now give way to the horrors of a home barely being held together against the alcoholism and indifference of the father. It amounts to two sides of the same coin, but Tsai isn’t making a social-problem film here, and his critique of patriarchal control is secondary to his portrait of unbearable psychic conditions. Shot at weird angles and given a self-contained, claustrophobic quality, this second part is deeply unsettling in a way that the first part only hints at, but in recasting the pain and need for connection in a new context, it maximizes the poignancy of the earlier section, suggesting that even if the world were altered, the sadness and alienation would inevitably remain. All that’s left to do is either cry or make fleeting attempts at physical contact and, this being a Tsai film, neither offers anything more than the barest release for any members of a fatally doomed human race.