Were one to walk the streets of Taipei, ride its elevated MRT lines, and pass by the imposing structure of the Taipei 101 and the malls that surround it, one would likely find — with just a modicum of effort — the rundown, low-level structures and neglected spaces that comprise Tsai Ming-liang’s 2013 film, Stray Dogs. Environs such as these have never been far from the director’s mind, with Rebels of the Neon God, The River, and Goodbye, Dragon Inn each exhibiting a palpable awareness of the rundown, sodden, and abandoned lacunae of the Taiwanese metropole. But where in those prior works dramatic tendencies emerge, in ever-dwindling degrees, throughout, Stray Dogs is the first feature work that comes close to standing as a cartography of the urban environment and the poetic abjection of the human faces found in the forgotten regions and forlorn conditions of such a place. Revolving around the aching struggle — of a father (Lee Kang-sheng) and his two children — to survive in modern Taiwan, Stray Dogs observes its trio as they work menial jobs, steal from supermarkets, dig through trash, and wash in public toilets and finally return to a home that is little more than a makeshift shed made of plastic and corrugated metal. Since the mid-2000s, Tsai has fundamentally pared down and elongated his style, deemphasizing dialogue even more in order to achieve narratives that strive for a direct experience of time and movement — or, as is more often the case, the abundance of the former and the total absence of the latter.
Yet, perhaps most powerfully, it is here that Tsai eschews his prior flirtations with fatalism and metaphysical cruelty for an expression of pain and despair that demands total empathy — a power in and of the image little matched elsewhere in his filmography.
While Tsai’s Walker shorts might be the most extreme examples of this shift in formal approach, Stray Dogs is its ultimate expression in the form of narrative filmmaking, a crystallizing unity found in the director’s presentation of narrative and performative desolation and the abandonment his cityscapes have always known. Yet, perhaps most powerfully, it is here that Tsai eschews his prior flirtations with fatalism and metaphysical cruelty for an expression of pain and despair that demands total empathy — a power in and of the image little matched elsewhere in his filmography. Indeed, it is in the stillness and protracted nature of shooting rhythms the director has been refining over the course of his career that Tsai is able to explore the full range of human emotion, regularly moving scenes through feelings of joy, despair, anger, and more as they evolve, twist, and unravel within their environments; which are, here, uniformly dilapidated and compound the overbearing sense of despair and hardship the family faces. Shots often last many minutes in length, such as the film’s climactic scene: an unbroken, 14-minute take of characters staring at a wall, which expresses the all too tangible nature of poverty. It is the genius of this shot’s duration which highlights the meaning here: the wall as an impassable, blank reflection of the self under conditions of bare life. The film’s final image, then, underscores the cruelty of dated ideology or migrated capital; the broken concrete, rusted metal, and molded wood one calls home. That there are few words is only right, even if one should ideally have experience of Taipei’s streets, for the film is but a stunning tapestry of diegetic sound and faces reflected in walls that shouldn’t be mirrors.