DENNIS SCHWARTZ Movie Reviews

STRAY DOGS (JIAOYOU) (director/writer: Tsai Ming-Liang; screenwriters: Tung Cheng-yu/Song Peng-fei; cinematographers: Liao Pen Jung/Sung Wen Zhong; editor: Lei Zhen Qing;cast:  Lee Kang-sheng, Yang Kuei Mei, Lu Yi Ching, Chen Shiang Chyi, Lee Yi Cheng, Lee Yi Chieh, Wu Jin Kai); Runtime: 140; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Vincent Wang/Marianne Dumoulin; Cinema Guild; 2013-Taiwan/France-in Mandarin with English subtitles)

"This is the tenth and the most daunting feature film Tsai has made."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The great Malaysian-born Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang' ("Rebels of the Neon God"/"Vive l’Amour "/"The Wayward Cloud") announced that this austere, minimalist, experimental, non-narrative film, a valentine to his hardcore admirers and a statement to Hollywood that he rejects your linear films, would be his last feature. This is the tenth and the most daunting feature film Tsai has made. It makes great strides in stripping away the conventions of film and reveals how tired he has become of cinema. This will probably be unsettling for many viewers, as this is an inaccessible film you either love or hate. Though not an easy one to view or understand, it's nevertheless always mesmerizing and mysterious. It raises questions on how to make and watch a film, and also asks us if we can feel the pain of others from a film and if we can look past all the long take vacuous shots of the main characters posing for the camera to find a way of tuning into the strange and surreal images on the screen. But more than anything else, I think, the auteur wants us to see how a densely populated modern urban city looks to someone who is marginalized by society and try to understand things from his POV.

It won the Grand Jury Prize in Venice.

Lee Kang-sheng is a single parent and a middle-aged homeless Taipei man, a screw-up who has a tough life as a society outcast. His low paying day job is to hold up an advertising real estate placard along a busy city intersection in all sorts of weather (it always seems to be raining). At night he squats in an abandoned building on the outskirts of town, where he lives with his two young children (Lee Yi Chieh & Lee Yi Cheng- the director’s godchildren and their film dad's real-life uncle). The kids don't seem to go to school (yet in one scene appear to be doing homework), but spend their days roaming the city's streets and supermarkets.In the markets they sample the free food. The kids can be looked at as stray dogs.

There are three different actresses as three different women, who might really be the same woman (Yang Kuei-mei, Lu Yi-ching and Chen Shiang-chyi). The woman is deliberately pictured as an enigmatic character, who is never explained but somehow touches the homeless man deeply. We see her as a supermarket manager (Lu Yi-ching), who takes the discarded store meat to feed the stray dogs of the title that make their home in the wooded areas of Taipei. In the opening scene she was a woman (Yang Kuei-mei) brushing her hair while the kids slept. Throughout the film, as the woman caretaker (Chen Shiang-chyi) for the kids, especially, when their alcoholic dad has times when he can't be there for them.

The uncompromising art piece has two protracted long scenes that defy rationality but profoundly reflect on the melancholy mood of the poetic film. In the closing scene, the homeless Lee Kang-sheng and the inexplicable woman caretaker of the children pose motionlessly for more than 13 minutes while staring intently at a charcoal mural landscape located in his makeshift apartment without finding a way to connect to each other yet feeling the pain of the other. Each sheds a tear before separately going outside. In the other strange set piece, one of the strange film's strangest scenes, the kids, having kid fun, place a dressed-up cabbage to look like a doll in dad's bed and when he discovers it, in a scene that goes on for over 11 minutes, he smothers it with a pillow and then devours it in a frenzy as if he were lashing out at the world.

The film's fatalist mood is derived when the human billboard protagonist, dressed in a yellow poncho at work, tears up in the wind and rain while emotionally reciting a 12th century poem from the Southern Song dynasty:

I launch a shrill cry at the heavens

My valiant heart loses hope

My exploits are naught but mud and dust

O vainglorious pain

The shame of defeat is not yet washed away.

I can't say exactly what is the film's message, but I believe you will get varied responses with no definitive answers. What I think can be clearly taken away from this unusual film, by one of cinema's best artists, is that Tsai believes we must learn how to patiently observe things and not rush to make quick judgments out of habit. We must learn how to penetrate deeply to see things in a transcending reality. Perhaps how the great poet Rilke learned to see things before he was a great poet, when he went to the Paris zoo every day, on his employer Rodin's advice for his writer's block, to just watch the caged animals and then was able to creatively write about what he saw while in that fixated state of meditation.

REVIEWED ON 3/1/2015       GRADE: A

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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