Stray Dogs (Jiao you)

Taiwan (2013) Dir. Tsai Ming Liang

Patience, it is said, is a virtue. Some filmmakers apparently like to challenge this with minimalist films made up of lingering scenes and silent longueurs that will have many reaching for the fast forward button on their DVD remote controls. Taiwan’s Tsai Ming Liang is one of these filmmakers as this bleak tale of poverty demonstrates.

The metaphoric title refers to heavy drinking father (Lee Kang-sheng), his son (Lee Yi Cheng) and daughter (Lee Yi Chieh) a homeless family who survive on the father’s wage as an advertising sign holder while his kids roam the streets. Forced to wash in public toilets and sleeping rough under a bridge their fortunes take a brighter turn when a lonely supermarket worker (Yang Kuei-Mei) spies the daughter hanging around the supermarket, eventually opening up her home in an abandoned building to the whole family.

That is the “plot” in a nutshell and to elaborate further is to essentially detail everything that happens, which is actually quite a bit despite the slog of long takes. A film like this will always be divisive with the hardcore arthouse lover wallowing in every second of it while mainstream cinema fans will be bored to death by it. Some of us, believe it or not, are somewhere in between – appreciating much of what the film gave us but not at such a painfully slow pace.

Tsai Ming Ling successfully conveys the hardships of the homeless family and their daily plight to survive and indeed the meditative approach is the right one in this instance, freeing it from the shackles of a deliberately manipulative and didactic narrative. By pointing the camera at his cast and letting them exist brings a much needed sense of reality and authenticity to the message Tsai is keen to impart. It works so very well and benefits from the unfettered naturalistic performances of his actors, especially the daughter, and the ambience of the real word serving as the soundtrack is all that is required to top off this potent exhibition.

I’ve no doubt that Tsai’s intention is to put the audience firmly in the same place of the characters by having us experience their day in real time as if we were observing them at that precise moment in time in real life. Again this is understandable but after five minutes of watching the father and his equally glum colleague Wang (Wu Jin-kai) – who later quits his job – standing by the roadside in the rain with their signs, tedium begins to set in.

Other scenes I fancy were designed to have a deeper effect on the audience in perhaps connecting spiritually with the mood of the cast. In one of two protracted moments built on the same premise, the woman stands motionless and silent before a mural of stony sea front. The first shot is about four minutes long; the second is at the end of the film and shows just her and the father staring at the wall. It lasts for over ten minutes, during which the woman slowly cries while the man takes the odd swig from a small bottle of booze, himself slowly tearing up.

What exactly is being said here? Does this mural provide spiritual serenity and solace for the woman or is it symbol of a paradise location she longs to visit? Are they tears of what she is missing out on or of remembrance of a past event in her life? I don’t even know if these are the kind of questions Tsai expected his audience to infer from these scenes but a lot of arthouse films are deliberately ambiguous by nature and rarely express the true intent of the filmmaker.

For the actors this type of film is arguably a bigger challenge than say Shakespeare or an action flick. They have act completely naturally at all times or, like the above outlined scenes, tell a story while doing almost nothing. Yang Kuei-Mei is remarkably resilient in the aforementioned last scene, standing rigidly still, unblinking save for a gentle flow of tears, having to hold our attention as her character undergoes whatever emotional turmoil beneath her static facade.

It is one thing for an actor to be able to cry while shouting at someone or cradling a small child, but to stand still and find the motivation to silently weep and tell a story takes real skill. Lee Kang-sheng is a long time Tsai leading man so this is business as usual for him. His character is difficult one to gauge – he is clearly takes the responsibility of providing for his kids seriously but he also comes across as a bit selfish in drinking his problems away.

One area in which there is no argument is how well the film is shot. Tsai employs some interesting compositions to great effect – such as in the supermarket where he films from inside a chiller cabinet, so the people reflected in the glass door appear and disappear like ghosts. A great bit of filmmaking. And the magical mural is illuminated by the woman’s torch with the baleful blue tint of the moonlight adding a melancholic but calming aura to the visuals.

There is absolutely a case to be made for Stray Dogs to have been redacted to a much more tolerable 90 minutes from its current 135 minutes but would it have the same impact? Therein lays the magic of cinema – that it is all things to all men (and women).

I do think there is a powerful and rewarding film to be found here but not everyone will be able to find it. Therefore I cannot subscribe to the “five stars” and “masterpiece” club but I can appreciate the intent and the meditative qualities of this film. Existing fans of Tsai’s work need only apply.