‘O vainglorious pain!’
‘In anger my hair stands on end.’
‘My valiant heart loses hope’
Lyrics from the straight-to-camera crooning as Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs (Jiao you) offers a piece of minimalist realism with a very human story at its heart, set in contemporary Taipei, which shows the tribulations of a family unit for whom destitution is real. A further example of Tsai Ming-liang’s marginalised central characters in society but in this instance focussing on two child leads, Stray Dogs has some links with I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone (2006) but stylistically it enhances its compositional and editing minimalism to create an even more succinctly claustrophobic scenario. Stray Dogs made it into Sight and Sound’s top films of 2013 (in January 2014 issue Vol 24:1) so, because of limited world cinema release in the UK, it is finally receiving a release on DVD. Additionally this release includes a shorter feature Journey to the West (Xi You 2014) and an extra where Tsai Ming-liang runs a master-class on his radical film-making techniques.
Yi Cheng (Yi Cheng Lee) and his younger sister Yi Chieh (Yi Chieh Lee) spend their nights sleeping beneath mosquito netting in a variety of derelict abodes and their days wandering around Taipei, sometimes within the city and sometimes in the forests and river banks of its outskirts. Their father (Kang-sheng Lee) works as a human billboard, standing in the rain amidst heavy traffic holding a sign that advertises his company’s wares. He is trying to hold onto his income, however meagre, despite – and perhaps because of – his strong alcohol use but he takes his responsibilities to his children seriously. The city is resplendent with its neon illumination contrasting with the dingy interiors and dark nights. The children’s eating arrangements range from occasional purchases of pre-prepared meals to taking free samples of food at the local supermarket, and the family wash and clean themselves in public conveniences. A woman takes an interest in this unusual little family, but can she help them and bring them together? And an evocative mural painted on the wall of a derelict building seems to hold a fascination for the adult characters.
The transition from countryside to city provides the opening for this drama as the story evolves at a glacial pace, the characterisation and social issues all depicted in sumptuously composed shots of its protagonists in varied environments, but with no clearly defined narrative. Stray Dogs shows us social situations and a whole gamut of emotion as the family go to extraordinary lengths to attain any sense of normality within their lives. Tsai Ming-liang presents us with a series of tableaux showing a family trying to survive which, although occasionally dispiriting, it is not without its moments of dark humour. When a cabbage is purchased and transformed into Ms. Cabbage, a cuddly night-time companion for the children, it becomes a means by which their father can vent his frustration at their situation: the hapless vegetable is beaten, savaged and partly devoured raw in an extensively long-shot sequence.
The film’s style is characterised by its exceedingly long takes, from the opening shot to the straight to camera song as the father stands in the wind and rain, holding his placard, as noisy traffic rushes by. The penultimate shot runs at 10% of the film’s running time (of over two hours), but it is crucial to understanding the narrative as it links the two adults embroiled in all their troubles through both drink and tears. This gives the film am element of humanity in a manner that is artistic in composition but with a realism in its depiction of situation and environment. This is art on film that reflects its brutally human story which involves eating, drinking, sleeping and urinating -all necessary aspects of life that are often ignored on-screen.
Journey to the West (Xi You 2014) is an entirely different yet stylistically similar piece. This time it is the opening shot of Dragon (Denis Lavant) half asleep at night that runs at 10% of the running time, although other shots beckon to compete. Shorter than Stray Dogs at just under an hour, this is a more spiritual journey but one which again contrasts its initial elements located outside of modernity with technological city life. Ostensibly a reinterpretation of the 17th Century Buddhist monk’s 17 year walk across Asia, this is given a contemporary twist as the Monk (Kang-sheng Lee) traverses across modern France. Again the cinematography is artistic and minimalist as early shots of an ascent up stairs are contrasted with descents down commuter based subway steps, the oblivious ‘extras’ of the film either glance or avoid the monk whose pace is so spiritually slow that a shot minutes long may only depict a just a single step or two. This is cinema as art, in a gallery sense, a meditation where movement and composition define boundaries away from the hubbub of any narrative.
Serenely paced but having strong social and spiritual relevance Stray Dogs and Journey to the West make for an alternative, thought-provoking and thoroughly artistic double bill.