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This Year's Prizes At the Venice Film Festival Were Historic. So Why Were They Also a Disappointment?

Indiewire By Neil Young | Indiewire September 8, 2013 at 9:51AM

When Bernardo Bertolucci announced on Saturday that the first-ever winner of Venice’' Grand Jury Prize was Tsai Ming Liang's "Stray Dogs," my heart sank.
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"Stray Dogs."
"Stray Dogs."

When Bernardo Bertolucci announced on Saturday that the first-ever winner of Venice’' Grand Jury Prize was Tsai Ming Liang's "Stray Dogs," my heart sank. Not because Tsai's tenth feature (and possibly his last) doesn’t deserve major prizes – oh, it does - but because this meant that something else had won the festival's top award, the Golden Lion. And by a process of elimination, that "something else" seemed likely to be either Hayao Miyazaki’s naggingly evasive "The Wind Rises" or Jonathan Glazer’s beautiful pricktease "Under the Skin" (reviewed at Telluride and discussed further in Shane Danielsen's report). "Stray Dogs" losing out on gold was bad enough – but to be edged out by a mediocre rival would have crossed a line from injustice to disgrace.

In the end, Bertolucci and his seven fellow jurors on stage – Carrie Fisher was mysteriously absent – froze out Miyazaki and Glazer altogether, the pair pointedly joining Xavier Dolan ("Tom at the Farm"), Errol Morris ("The Unknown Known") and Philippe Garrel ("Jealousy") in the salon of the conspicuously refusé.

READ MORE: At 70, the Venice Film Festival Is Good, But No Longer One of the Greats

As has been widely reported elsewhere already this weekend, the jurors did see fit to honor Alexandros Avranas' "Miss Violence" (Best Actor, Best Director), Stephen Frears' "Philomena" (Screenplay), Emma Dante's "A Street in Palermo" (Actress), and Philipp Groning's "The Police Officer's Wife (Special Jury Prize)…and even David Gordon Green's very tepidly-received "Joe," with 16-year-old star Tye Sheridan picking up -- to absolutely no one's surprise -- the Marcello Mastroianni Award for the best young, emerging performer.

Tsai Ming Liang's "Stray Dogs" has left the Lido without the prize it most emphatically deserved.

And if "Stray Dogs" had to lose, at least it lost to a strong rival, albeit one seldom mentioned as a serious contender by prediction junkies such as myself: Gianfranco Rosi's elegantly observed "Holy GRA" ("Sacro Gra"), the first documentary to land the top prize in the 81-year history of the world’s oldest film festival. The convention that non-fiction and fiction don’t contend against each other in the top festivals is, needless to say, an archaic absurdity. And form-students will note that when such "anomalies" do crop up -- Jacques Cousteau won Cannes in 1956, Michael Moore ditto 48 years later -- they have a pretty strong strike-rate.

But while we're all delighted that more quality documentaries will, as a result of tonight, contend for golden prizes, that must be weighed against the simple fact that Tsai Ming Liang's "Stray Dogs" has left the Lido without the prize it most emphatically deserved. Tsai’s already got one Leone d’Oro on his sideboard at home, of course (he shared top honors in 1994 for his second feature, "Vive l'Amour.") And there was no doubting the genuine delight he displayed when he beamingly picked up his trophy, then gave way to tears during his acceptance speech -- perhaps a factor of his recently-announced "retirement" from features (hopeful sign: when asked about this in a press conference, his response was a guilty little giggle.)

There's some irony, however, in the fact that the trophy itself was instituted pretty directly as a result of last year’s debacle, when on an evening unforgettable for its clusterfuck of incompetence and slapstick mishap, Michael Mann's jury gave the picture they adored (Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master") the runner-up prize and the Golden Lion, as a kind of afterthought, to something else entirely (Kim Ki-duk’s "Pietà"). 20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, but 12 moons later there can be no doubt that in terms of its subsequent reception by audiences, critics and festival programmers, the reputation of "The Master" now far outstrips that of its Korean rival (though it's not without naysayers, including the author of this article.)

Next: Will "Stray Dogs" stand the test of time?

Tom At The Farm Xavier Dolan

And with all respect to Rosi and "Holy GRA" – an episodic portrait of people and places around Rome’s vast ring-road that's much more intelligent and imaginative than its desperate pun of a title (Holy GRA…Holy Gra..Holy Grail…nevermind) -- it will surely be a similar story with "Stray Dogs" over the coming months and years. For this critic, it's a soaring masterpiece, a huge and complex work of art, and one for the ages. I saw it twice here, once with my fellow critics and once with a "mixed" audience of critics and (mainly) public, and would now rank it ahead of every new film I've seen since James Benning's 2007 farewell to 16mm, "casting a glance."

Like Benning's austere landscape contemplations -- "casting a glance" is breezy and speedy compared with much of his output -- "Stray Dogs" is heavily concerned with time and duration, and their effect on the audience. It runs 138 minutes and contains 76 or 77 shots (I lost count both times), so the average shot-length is less than two minutes. But in this story of a poverty-stricken dad (Tsai's regular alter ego Lee Kang-Sheng) and his two children eking out an existence on the rainy streets of Taiwan's third largest city Taichung, five shots run more than five minutes apiece, and that has caused some viewers severe problems.

READ MORE: 'Sacro Gra' and 'Miss Violence' Top Venice Awards

Most testing are the picture's "unholy trio" comprising of the following: a bedroom scene in which Lee's drunken dad cradles, attacks and eats a white cabbage (10 min 43 sec); a night scene in which Lee and a woman contemplate a mural in an abandoned building (13 min 45 sec); a shot of the mural itself that runs a mere seven minutes. There’s no hardier scourge of slow-cinema poseurs than yours truly, but to put Tsai into that category is rather like sticking Veronese or Titian in with the clods whose gaudy daubs of Piazza San Marco can be bought in every other shop on and around Piazza San Marco.

I told pals that I might well be collapsing into a lagoon of tears if Tsai didn’t win the Lion.

There's nothing remotely gratuitous or affected about Tsai's film, edited by Lei Zhenqing, and by the final third our conception of time itself has been so thoroughly warped that many "Stray Dogs" viewers were stunned that the picture ended when it did, so convinced there was perhaps another half-hour to go. Not that everyone got so far, the instantly notorious "cabbage scene" (the humble brassica's finest big-screen cameo) sorting the sprouts from the broccoli, as it were. And not even the international critics of Fipresci – invariably champions of the "difficult" and the unfairly abused - were convinced, giving their prize to Xavier Dolan's "Tom at the Farm" (also covered by Shane earlier).

Not a bad choice -- along with the Tsai and the Rosi, Dolan's Québécois genre-bender was one of three Competition contenders I regarded as anything out of the ordinary, cementing a banner year for French-Canadian cinema after Denis Côté's "Vic and Flo Saw a Bear" and Frédérick Pelletier's "Diego Star." But that's just a matter of personal taste – plenty of sage observers were ardent in their praise for pictures which, for one reason or another, left me either tepid or clay-cold. And any festival that includes "Stray Dogs" is, by definition, a successful festival. I'd also pick out as personal highlights the out-of-competition duo "Gravity" (Alfonso Cuarón) and "Locke" (Steven Knight), as well as the documentaries "At Berkeley" (Frederick Wiseman) and "Double Play: James Benning, Richard Linklater" (Gabe Klinger).

And then there was "Aningaaq," the seven-minute companion piece to "Gravity," written and directed by Alfonso's son Jonas (who co-wrote "Gravity"), which shows us the other side of the crackly conversation-through-the-ether between Sandra Bullock's character Ryan Stone and a random Inuit fisherman (Orto Ignatiussen) whom her mayday call inexplicably reaches. Poignantly pivoting on the fate of Aningaaq's faithful, elderly, ailing husky – an emphatically un-stray dog - this masterpiece in miniature compliments (indeed, completes) the space-epic so wonderfully it should be tacked on to every release-print and screened, unannounced, post-credits.

Slipping into drama-queen mode after ten days of Lido excess, I’d told pals that I might well be collapsing into a lagoon of tears if Tsai didn’t win the Lion. As it turned out, Tsai took care of the waterworks solo – courtesy of "Aningaaq," these old ducts were tundra-dry.

This article is related to: Venice Film Festival, Golden Lion, Ming-liang Tsai, Tsai Ming-liang, Stray Dogs, Tom at the Farm, Xavier Dolan, Sacro GRA, Gianfranco Rosi