For pure insanity, nothing at this year’s New York Film Festival tops Stray Dogs’ sight of Lee Kang-sheng’s drunken single father losing his mind in bed alongside a doll whose head is made of cabbage, the man–driven to madness by a life of wretched poverty–first caressing the cabbage, then biting and tearing into its mouth and eyes, and finally collapsing in tears.
Like so much of Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang’s latest, it’s a sequence shot in one long, static take. Though so minimalist that it routinely tries one’s patience, that rigorous formal approach (replete with a diegetic soundtrack of passing cars and falling raindrops) is used time and again by the director to highlight both the misery and stasis of his characters. While Lee earns a paltry living holding up a business’ advertisement sign in a bustling thoroughfare, his son and daughter (Lu Yi-ching and Li Yi-cheng) wander grimy city streets and sterile supermarkets, where they eventually come to the attention of Chen Siang-chyi’s store employee.
Already apt to feed the area’s stray dogs, Chen soon takes the children under her wing. Any domestic stability they establish, however, is undercut by Tsai’s depiction of their destitute circumstances on the fringes of a society they cannot successfully join. Be it an image of Chen and the kids huddled in the pouring rain, a scene in which Lee’s daughter tells Chen a fable about downtrodden frogs, or a finale in which a frozen Lee and Chen stare morosely at a wall mural of a rock field and mountain range–a symbol of the escape and freedom they can’t attain–Stray Dogs paints an alternately plaintive and furious portrait of social inequality and marginalization.