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Sleeper of the Week: Tsai Ming-Liang’s Lyrical, Cabbage-Centric ‘Stray Dogs’

Sleeper of the Week: Tsai Ming-Liang's Lyrical, Cabbage-Centric 'Stray Dogs'

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“Stray Dogs”
Dir: Tsai Ming-liang
Criticwire Average: B+

Director Tsai Ming-liang (“The Hole,” “What Time Is It There?”) is one of the world’s most exciting and challenging filmmakers, mixing tales of urban decay and alienation with a style that punctuates long, quiet takes with more playful flourishes. His film “Stray Dogs,” which hits select theaters today, played at Venice and TIFF last year, and it was initially reported as potentially his last film after the director stated his desire to retire. He’s since made another film (“Journey to the West” with Denis Lavant), but many critics still see “Stray Dogs” as a summation of his career, a film that finally takes the poverty that he frequently depicted in his films its main subject.

The film follows a poor family: a father (frequent Tsai collaborator Lee Kang-sheng) who works as a human sign, a mother (played by three actresses for reasons that aren’t immediately clear) who works at a grocery store, and their two children. The film is less about big drama and more about the day-to-day life of those struggling to survive and how little their pain is seen by others. Tsai makes their pain felt, deeply, by never looking away, employing his long-take ethos to devastating effect. 

Update: The movie is now available on Netflix.

Jake Cole, Film.com

The film’s cinematography is so sharp that one can see a bowl of noodles still boiling even as it sits in the middle plane of a long shot, or watery mucus pooling and shriveling with each flare of Lee’s nostrils as the pressure of standing stock-still all day gets to him. As so many shots carry on for so long, these minuscule details become short, dramatic films unto themselves, with Tsai’s static takes and unadorned mise-en-scène nevertheless producing self-contained but interlinked actions. Read more.

A.A. Dowd, The A.V. Club

Yes, some of the more protracted shots may try a viewer’s patience, with Tsai apparently testing just how long he can go without cutting before the audience outright revolts. But there’s method to such single-take madness. This is, after all, a movie about not looking away, so why should the director? Tsai closes on a moment of all-or-nothing transcendence, throwing down the gauntlet with an endless, climactic stare into the void.  Read more.

Oliver Lyttelton, The Playlist

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. Read more.

Andrew Schenker, Slant Magazine

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. Read more.

Scott Tobias, The Dissolve

“Stray Dogs” is about the condition of living hand-to-mouth, of being among those forgotten urban dwellers who are pressed so far into the margins that nobody notices them at all. In one of the film’s most extraordinary scenes, tears slowly well up in Lee’s eyes as he stands with his placard in the driving rain, singing a Chinese lyrical poem with a cracked voice. He’s hidden by the sign and the downpour — no one can see him or hear him at this moment, other than the audience. Tsai implies that pain doesn’t even register enough for people to feel apathetic about it; they just don’t know he’s there. Read more.

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