As it played festivals in 2013, Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang billed his despairing Stray Dogs as his final feature-length movie.
This may or may not prove true — this year, he premiered the medium-length Journey to the West — but there’s little shaking the sensation that Stray Dogs plays like a farewell scream from the rain-drenched corners of Taipei. In an unbearable, characteristically empathetic close-up, Tsai regular Lee Kang-sheng — playing
a homeless man eking out an income for his children by holding signboards at
intersections — sings lines from a 12th-century poem: “My exploits are naught but mud and dust…When will the grief of the Empire’s subjects end?”
Stray Dogs is Tsai’s first digital feature, which allows him to stretch his technique — static long takes depicting static characters in frequently static environments — to agonizing lengths that wouldn’t be possible with film reels.
The result is an extreme, compassionate magnification of the minutiae of second-to-second existence (brushing teeth, counting money).
The duration of the takes reveals depths in Lee’s visage: A gesture as minor as leaning his head while taking a smoke exposes the crushing weight of his labor. Toward the end, the movie transitions to something more disturbing. The setting shifts from wet sidewalks to a rotting home, where the maternal figure overseeing Lee’s children is played by a third different actress (an impenetrable nod to Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire).
If the closing image of Lee and this woman staring at a mural can be said to constitute some measure of hope, it can only be considered a minimal amount when held up against the deluge of
anguish that has preceded it.