Monday, September 09, 2013

Stray Dogs

The NEW Tsai Ming-liang film, JIAOYOU (Stray Dogs), which won the GRAND JURY PRIZE at the recently concluded 70th Venice Film Festival.

Cannot wait to behold the film! I am not really a fan of "slow films," but with Ming-liang, the experience is always hyptonic, distrubingly so. I still remember watching his last film 'Visage (Face) (2008) three years back, that too in a big screen.

Synopsis: A father and his two children wander the margins of modern day Taipei, from the woods and rivers of the outskirts to the rain streaked streets of the city. By day the father scrapes out a meager income as a human billboard for luxury apartments, while his young son and daughter roam the supermarkets and malls surviving off free food samples. Each night the family takes shelter in an abandoned building. The father is strangely affected by a hypnotic mural adorning the wall of this makeshift home. On the day of the father’s birthday the family is joined by a woman—might she be the key to unlocking the buried emotions that linger from the past?

Director’s Statement: There is no story to tell. Hsiaokang is a good for nothing who holds signboards for a living. He smokes and pisses in the streets that are ever flowing with vehicles and pedestrians. The only people in his life are his two children. They eat together, brush their teeth together, get changed together and sleep together. They have no water or electrical supply and sleep on the same mattress with a head of cabbage, tightly embracing each other. The whole city has become a dumping ground for stray dogs and the river is far, far away. Then, one stormy night, he decides to take his children on a sailing trip.

In a small concrete room, with black mould climbing up its crumbling walls, a woman is watching two children sleep. She runs a brush through her hair, and the gentle scruff-scruff-scruff noise of the bristles mixes with the sound of falling rain. One of the children starts breathing heavily, in little half-sighs, half-snores, and as time passes, you realise that your own breath, and the breath of the audience, has synchronised with his. This single shot, the first in Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs, runs for seven minutes. Welcome to slow cinema.

Stray Dogs screened in competition at the Venice Film Festival earlier this week, although even the idea of pitting it against Philomena and Tracks for the Golden Lion is utterly bizarre — like admiring the buns and scones on a village fete’s baking competition table and noticing someone has entered a photograph of a sock.

Those films tell you stories with beginnings, middles and ends, but Tsai, a long-standing hero of slow cinema fans, is offering something very different. This is a meditation on the way time flows through our lives, when seconds can stretch into hours and entire months can be swallowed by a single cut. It perhaps goes without saying that you have to be in the mood for it, as does everyone else: if you think hearing a mobile phone ring during Iron Man is bad enough, wait until it happens in the middle of a heartbeat-slowing eight-minute shot of a woman staring at a mural of a mountain lake.
The mongrels of the title are a middle-aged father, played by Tsai’s regular leading man Lee Kang-sheng, and his young son and daughter (who are played by Lee’s real-life nephew and niece). During the day he works as a ‘human billboard’, holding adverts for estate agents beside a busy road, while his children roam the city’s parks and streets. At night, they bed down in a ruined tower block. Later, the boy and girl meet up with a woman who may or may not be the same one we see in the first scene: she is played by a different actress, but the film suggests she may be the same person.

“I have become tired of cinema,” Tsai rather grandly announces in the press notes for his latest, adding that he has no interest in making “the kinds of films that expect the patronage of cinema audiences.” Viewed as a corroborating statement in that manifesto, “Stray Dogs” works with effective perversity: Never the most broadly accessible of filmmakers, Tsai here seems to be stripping his ornately eccentric style down to formal fundamentals. A certain pictorial grace remains; his sense of humor, sadly, appears to have been largely tossed out with the bathwater.

The film opens on the image of an elegant, initially faceless young woman (Yang Kuei-mei) repeatedly brushing her lustrous mane of hair as two kids we presume are her own (real-life siblings Lee Yi-chieh and Lee Yi-cheng, the director’s godchildren) snore soundly behind her. It’s a witchily seductive image held just long enough to be hypnotic, though the film’s showpiece shots will get longer and less compelling from there. The woman disappears for the remainder of the film, though her character returns in the guise of two other actresses — a gambit likely to fox even diligent arthouse audiences, who could easily be forgiven for puzzling over the family structure of this semi-broken home.

For the film’s first half, at least, it’s the disenfranchised man of the house (Lee Kang-sheng, real-life uncle to his onscreen offspring) who drives what we shall call, for the sake of convenience, the action. Introduced while braving the elements as a human signpost at a busy intersection — where we shall visit him on several further occasions — he appears to have been left to fend on his own for the children.

This mode of largely wordless breadline realism, complete with solemn smoke breaks and outdoor urination, is sustained until a scene that is sure to be the film’s talked-about creative coup: an 11-minute take in which our unnamed hero by turn smothers, eats and nurses a whole cabbage found in his bed, weeping all the while. Cole-crop asphyxiation is a psychological low from which any man can only recover, and the film’s more enigmatic remainder does seemingly take the family to a point of reparation — though this bizarre emotional pivot doesn’t prompt anything so cathartic as a full tilt into madness. There is, however, at least one longer take to come, all stoic silence complete with single tear rolling down a character’s cheek; Tsai’s self-professed rejection of cinema, it seems, does not require a rejection of sentimentality.

In a festival that's seen a number of endurance tests—Philip Groning's three-hour, 59-chapter "The Police Officer's Wife," the abstracted imagery of "Under The Skin," the brief but unrelentingly terrible duration of "Parkland," no film seemed to inspire more walk outs than "Stray Dogs." The return of acclaimed Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang after a 4-year absence (and longer since he made a film at home: 2009's "Play" mostly featured French actors), it's not that it’s particularly lengthy, or particularly provocative in its content.

But anyone familiar with Tsai's earlier work—"Goodbye Dragon Inn" is perhaps the best known—will be aware that he marches very much to his own pace and to his own beat, and almost as much as anything he's ever made, "Stray Dogs" frustrates those looking for answers or traditional narrative, and moves at an especially sleepy pace, with some shots lasting around the ten minute mark. But those who stayed to the end were rewarded with one of the most distinctive and beguiling films of the festival.

Tsai sets the tone for what's to follow with a lengthy shot of a moldy flat, where two children (Lee Yi Cheng and his sister Li Yi Chieh) sleep while a woman, presumably their mother, watches over them, brushing her hair over her face. Soon, she's gone, and the children are left living in a shipping container with their father (Lee Kang-Sheng), who makes a meager living, most of which is spent on alcohol and cigarettes, holding up an advertising sign in the middle of the motorway.

The children don't seem to be in school anymore, instead spending their days playing and living off free supermarket samples. The woman returns, in a way; two other actresses return as maternal figures, in the shape of Lu Yi Cheng and Chen Shang Chyi, but it's not totally apparent from the film itself that they're meant to be the same character (though Tsai suggests otherwise in the press notes, saying he split the role into three after a health scare, in case he never had another chance to work with the actresses).

It should be fairly apparent at this point that "Stray Dogs" is not going to be for everyone, even before a narrative shift midway through that essentially restarts the film. This is Art Cinema in very deliberate upper case, with a languid naturalism that, while highly grounded, creates a mood more dream-like than kitchen sink.

Taipei-based Chinese director Tsai Ming-liang announced at the Venice Film Festival, where his latest film "Stray Dogs" is in competition, that the movie would be his last, but left himself some wriggle room. READ THE COMPLETE INTERVIEW IN REUTERS HERE>

China's Taiwan-based director Tsai Ming-liang won the new Grand Jury Prize for his film "Jiaoyou" (Stray Dogs) at the 70th Venice International Film Festival on Saturday. When awarded the prize, given to a film that was particularly appreciated by the members of the international jury, the 55-year-old director earned warm applause from the audience of the festival's closing ceremony. "I thank all the jury members and the public in Venice for slowing down their pace to watch my movie," he said referring to some slow framings, defined by many as almost paintings, that last for several minutes.

"Jiaoyou," which premiered on Thursday, tells the story of a disgraced man, Hsiao Kang (played by Taiwanese actor Lee Kang-sheng,) who holds signboards for a living in Taipei's streets that are ever flowing with vehicles and pedestrians. The only people in Hsiao Kang's life are his two children, and the single-parent family moves from one abandoned building to another until it is unexpectedly joined by a woman who might be the key to unlock the buried feelings that linger from the past. In a press conference earlier this week, Tsai said that "Jiaoyou" might be his last movie, though he does not know what are "the destiny's plans" for him.

Like Benning's austere landscape contemplations -- "casting a glance" is breezy and speedy compared with much of his output -- "Stray Dogs" is heavily concerned with time and duration, and their effect on the audience. It runs 138 minutes and contains 76 or 77 shots (I lost count both times), so the average shot-length is less than two minutes. But in this story of a poverty-stricken dad (Tsai's regular alter ego Lee Kang-Sheng) and his two children eking out an existence on the rainy streets of Taiwan's third largest city Taichung, five shots run more than five minutes apiece, and that has caused some viewers severe problems.

Most testing are the picture's "unholy trio" comprising of the following: a bedroom scene in which Lee's drunken dad cradles, attacks and eats a white cabbage (10 min 43 sec); a night scene in which Lee and a woman contemplate a mural in an abandoned building (13 min 45 sec); a shot of the mural itself that runs a mere seven minutes. There’s no hardier scourge of slow-cinema poseurs than yours truly, but to put Tsai into that category is rather like sticking Veronese or Titian in with the clods whose gaudy daubs of Piazza San Marco can be bought in every other shop on and around Piazza San Marco.

There's nothing remotely gratuitous or affected about Tsai's film, edited by Lei Zhenqing, and by the final third our conception of time itself has been so thoroughly warped that many "Stray Dogs" viewers were stunned that the picture ended when it did, so convinced there was perhaps another half-hour to go. Not that everyone got so far, the instantly notorious "cabbage scene" (the humble brassica's finest big-screen cameo) sorting the sprouts from the broccoli, as it were. And not even the international critics of Fipresci – invariably champions of the "difficult" and the unfairly abused - were convinced, giving their prize to Xavier Dolan's "Tom at the Farm."


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