In a festival that’s seen a number of endurance tests—Philip Groning‘s three-hour, 59-chapter “The Police Officer’s Wife,” the abstracted imagery of “Under The Skin,” the brief but unrelentingly terrible duration of “Parkland,” no film seemed to inspire more walk outs than “Stray Dogs.” The return of acclaimed Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang after a 4-year absence (and longer since he made a film at home: 2009’s “Play” mostly featured French actors), it’s not that it’s particularly lengthy, or particularly provocative in its content.
But anyone familiar with Tsai’s earlier work—”Goodbye Dragon Inn” is perhaps the best known—will be aware that he marches very much to his own pace and to his own beat, and almost as much as anything he’s ever made, “Stray Dogs” frustrates those looking for answers or traditional narrative, and moves at an especially sleepy pace, with some shots lasting around the ten minute mark. But those who stayed to the end were rewarded with one of the most distinctive and beguiling films of the festival.
Tsai sets the tone for what’s to follow with a lengthy shot of a moldy flat, where two children (Lee Yi Cheng and his sister Li Yi Chieh) sleep while a woman, presumably their mother, watches over them, brushing her hair over her face. Soon, she’s gone, and the children are left living in a shipping container with their father (Lee Kang-Sheng), who makes a meager living, most of which is spent on alcohol and cigarettes, holding up an advertising sign in the middle of the motorway.
The children don’t seem to be in school anymore, instead spending their days playing and living off free supermarket samples. The woman returns, in a way; two other actresses return as maternal figures, in the shape of Lu Yi Cheng and Chen Shang Chyi, but it’s not totally apparent from the film itself that they’re meant to be the same character (though Tsai suggests otherwise in the press notes, saying he split the role into three after a health scare, in case he never had another chance to work with the actresses).
It should be fairly apparent at this point that “Stray Dogs” is not going to be for everyone, even before a narrative shift midway through that essentially restarts the film. This is Art Cinema in very deliberate upper case, with a languid naturalism that, while highly grounded, creates a mood more dream-like than kitchen sink.
And if the opening shot doesn’t clue you in, Tsai is hardly a rapid-fire cutter. We wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were less than a hundred shots in the film, with two in particular—one a moment when Lee confronts a cabbage that his children have drawn a face on, taking it as representative of his ex-wife and proceeding to eat the whole thing raw, the other the penultimate shot, with the man and woman united, staring out at… something—that must clock in around the 10-minute mark.
But it’s fortunate, then, that the film is as fully realized and strongly executed as it is. Every shot feels perfectly composed, while often surprising, and every time Tsai makes a cut, you can’t see how it could have been done any other way. While their sheer duration might test some’s patience, the cabbage scene proves to be a wryly funny highlight of the film, and while the penultimate scene does seem to go forever, when the payoff comes, it turns out to be deeply, deeply moving, and so much of that is about the amount of time the set-up took.
So the filmmaking here is almost impossibly well-realized, right down to the evocative sound design, adding up to an fairly unforgettable experience. But we will say that while the form is undeniable, the content isn’t quite as transcendent. Tsai’s in the same kind of territory as he’s been in a few times in the past—down-and-outs in leaky buildings, slipping between the cracks of society. It remains resonant and affecting stuff, but as good as the performers are (Lee in particular is absolutely extraordinary), it only feels like it’s breaking new ground in the occasional moment, and ultimately proves a little too inscrutable to truly cherish, at least for us.
Still, these are high standards to set for anyone, and of all the films we saw in Venice, this is the one that most demands a second viewing: there’s an awful lot to unpack here, and another go-round could probably see our view go way up, or a fair way down. But if nothing else, you’re left with a masterclass in directing, and a film that anyone who’s serious about cinema needs to make the time to see. [A-/B+]