Malaysian-Chinese director Tsai Ming Liang has said, more than once, that he sees himself more as a creator of images than as a storyteller - and the way his oeuvre has developed over the years has done nothing to disprove such an adage, with each new work moving further and further away from any sort of conventional landmarks. With Stray Dogs, his tenth feature, you get an almost plotless, often dialogue-free mood-piece stringing together a series of dazzling, self-contained long takes that seem to engulf any sort of momentum or development the film may have.
Less of a traditional narrative than a series of evocative scenes involving the need for affection in a growingly impersonal world - a theme that has resonated throughout Mr. Tsai's career - Stray Dogs is a wonder to look at as much as, sadly, it is a challenge to sit through. His work was never that strong narratively to begin with, but somehow it seems as his attempts at creating feature-length pieces has taken a back seat to more mixed-media, experimental work such as the on-going series of Walker shorts whose latest example is the zen maturity of Journey to the West.
The film's overarching concept of a destitute family man (played by Mr. Tsai's usual stand-in, Lee Kang Sheng) working as a human billboard to provide for his children in the absence of their mother could be construed as the reverse of the mysterious "walker" Mr. Lee plays in the parallel shorts: a man who struggles to move and stands still, lost in his own dreams of possibly recreating the nuclear family he let go of. The problem lies in the sense that Mr. Tsai's style isn't here to serve a narrative but to lead the viewer into a more rarified, sensory dimension that is constantly subtracting elements necessary to its full comprehension.
It's closer in spirit to an art installation unfolding in time, divided very clearly into three acts, to which Mr. Tsai attributes a different female actress - the second, and longest act, is the one where the more recognisable narrative elements come together, with Stray Dogs eventually dissolving, in its final third, into a Lynchian Möbius strip of dreams and aspirations that demand total devotion from the viewer. Personally, I have my doubts that, at nearly two and a half hours, the cinema screen is the ideal place to watch it, but I could be wrong, and either way this is indeed a ravishing, exquisitely controlled visual experience.
Taiwan, France, 2013
Cast Lee Kang Sheng, Yang Kuei Mei, Lu Yi Ching, Chen Shiang Chyi, Lee Yi Cheng, Lee Yi Chieh, Wu Jin Kai
Director Tsai Ming Liang; screenwriters Tung Cheng Yu, Mr. Tsai and Peng Fei; cinematographers Liao Pen Jung and Sung Wen Zhong (colour, widescreen); art directors Masa Liu and Mr. Tsai; costumes Wang Chia Hui; editor Lei Zhen Qing; producers Vincent Wang and Mr. Lee; production companies Homegreen Films and JBA Production in association with House on Fire Productions and Urban Distribution International
Screened June 14th 2015, Lisbon
STRAY DOGS (trailer) from Cinema Guild on Vimeo.