© 2020 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
NPR Arts & Life

An Unblinking Lens Turns Toward Lives In Poverty In 'Stray Dogs'

<em>Stray Dogs, </em>set in Taipei, examines a family's bleak experience.
<em>Stray Dogs, </em>set in Taipei, examines a family's bleak experience.

Tsai Ming-liang's Stray Dogscaps off with two shots, each over ten minutes long, though I doubt that will make the movie any easier to sell, even in a culture obsessed with long takes. The episode-capping tracking shot in True Detective or the opening 17 minutes of Gravity — those celebrated scenes awed us with movement. In his two final shots, Tsai lulls us with stillness.

The use of lengthy, stationary shots has long been part of art-house movie style and the shift to using digital cameras has allowed directors like Tsai to push the limits of the technique. In Stray Dogs, Tsai only occasionally climbs past the ten minute mark, but most of his shots last for at least two or three, each pushing us slowly but determinedly into the world of a nameless father (Lee Kang-sheng) and his two children (Lee Yi-Chieh and Lee Yi-Cheng).

The three are homeless in Taipei, passing their nights in an abandoned lot protected only by sheets of corrugated metal. During the day, the dad makes money by holding up real estate advertisements by the side of a busy street. Tsai emphasizes the dreary nature of the work in three shots, set on a windy and rainy day, each one pushing a few steps closer to the father, culminating in a tight close-up in which he tearfully sings a 12 th century poem that includes the line, "my exploits are naught but mud and dust."

While their father works, the two kids roam Taipei, spending much of their time in a supermarket, where a grocer (Lu Yi-ching) takes a seemingly motherly interest in them. She begins following them through the city until one night she either steals them away or rescues them from their father, depending on how you read the scene. Tsai then cuts to a completely disconnected scenario, in which the father, the children, and a new woman (Chen Shiang-chyi) are now living in an eerie abandoned apartment.

Tsai never resolves that mystery, nor many others, which might prove irritating unless you approach Stray Dogs not as a film about arcs and trajectories but one made up of discrete stages.

The unnamed father does provide a thread to follow. In the film's first act, there's an escalation of despair in him that climaxes in a night of heavy drinking, presented in two shots that are, along with the earlier song, the film's most immediately powerful moments.

But otherwise, Tsai's shots of his characters wandering the city, eating meals, and washing themselves in public restrooms offer a collection of vignettes through which Tsai conveys both the sadness of poverty but also the way it tragically becomes its own routine. And in such a view, the sudden switch of scenario in the second act becomes less a leap in narrative logic than a new perspective—a delayed background story, in some ways—on the same poverty, the same tragedy.

This growing thematic resonance and slow accumulation of emotion highlight the effectiveness of Tsai's stylistic approach. But I'd be lying if I didn't admit that the longest of Tsai's shots pushed me past discomfort to frustration. In such moments Tsai seems to have hit upon the flip-side problem of showboating shots like that in Gravity: while the latter can hide a lack of substance with flash, Tsai's lengthiest shots bleed out all emotion until we're left with a similarly empty feeling. Luckily, the same cannot be said about Stray Dogs as a whole, which in its most evocative moments offers images that will stick in your mind even longer than they stay on the screen.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.