“Stray Dogs is unquestionably a unique experience, there’s no doubt, but it’s just that I didn’t like it very much.”
by Ken B.
Earlier in the day in which I watched Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs, I had a song stuck in my head, which seems to be a near-constant occurrence in my life. This time, it was the Belle & Sebastian song “Nobody’s Empire”. When watching the film later that night, a lyric from the song, taken completely out of context, rolled around in my mind – “there’s beauty in every stumble”. This seems to be a backbone component of the movie. Here is a deliberately paced (read: slow as a snail), yet beautifully shot examination (or maybe meditation could be the accurate term for this example) on extreme poverty in Taipei, following a set of characters through a 135 minute trip of a picture, composed entirely from carefully framed static shots running at least four or five minutes a piece, it seems, and with little to no dialogue. There is a stretch of film that I’m recalling right now that runs near a half an hour, takes place in one room, features a maximum of two characters, not a single word is said, and in this twenty-five to thirty minute space, there is a grand total of exactly two separate shots. If you choose to watch this movie, be ready for the long haul.
Yes, it seems that Stray Dogs has taken an altogether unique depiction of homelessness and poverty and turned it into a comically slow but oddly watchable commentary on these subjects – hence, beauty in every stumble. And I do concede that the concept of the story and the way it’s executed is fresh and consistent, but to be honest, I couldn’t get past Tsai’s disjointed and cumbersome style. It didn’t fuse well with the saga at its core, which focuses on a middle-aged man (Lee Kang-sheng) and his two children as they navigate the city, facing impossible-seeming odds to stay above water when financial support is all but gone, with Lee’s character scraping up meager change by holding signs on the street for apartments he could never afford himself.
The scene that defines Stray Dogs’ aesthetic to its most parody-like style is the two shots I mentioned in the first paragraph, where Lee stands with Chen Shiyang-chyi, playing a woman, also unnamed, and staring at a mural in an abandoned building. After nearly two hours of a wandering, contemplative string of concepts that are almost a story, a sequence where the physical action comes to an abrupt halt but the emotional resonance runs at record highs, Tsai has fully restated his points and views when approaching this story. Whether it works or not is a different question. For me, I loved the idea and the cinematography, but there were large stretches of the movie where, to be blunt, I was bored out of my mind, because of the jarring contrast between what was possible in the story and what was brought about. Stray Dogs is unquestionably a unique experience, there’s no doubt, but it’s just that I didn’t like it very much.