Title: Stray Dogs
Director(s): Tsai Ming-Liang
Release Year: 2013
There is something to appreciate out of Stray Dogs, the 2013 film from Tsai Ming-Liang. It is a film comprised of beauty and personal connections which I was more than ready to take in. Perhaps it was my unfamiliarity with Ming-Liang’s previous works, but everything that felt like it was methodically planned out, wound up pushing me away from the film. Long stretches of silence and immobile characters assist in emitting each character’s emotions and feelings at the time, but do nothing to help propel the already bare bones plot forward. The film demands attention to the minute changes in a characters expression, but at the same time, fails to compel the viewer to be attentive. Acclimatizing to this kind of slow-moving film would surely benefit anyone going into Stray Dogs, and perhaps they would walk out with a new outlook on life; my reaction was a combination of appreciation and boredom.
The mind cannot help but wander (like a stray dog) when watching a 10+ minute shot of our two adult characters (Lee Kang-Sheng as the father of a young boy and girl, and Chen Chyi as the supermarket manager who begins to take notice of the family) merely standing still and moving only slightly and periodically. In a way that is beneficial to the film as it lets the audience think about everything, or the mind will not wander and instead the audience watches patiently, catching the slightest of cues from characters to receive a deeper understanding of their actions. Nothing is ever spoken outright in Stray Dogs, and that is kind of the allure of it. Had the actors been less able to emote without saying anything than the film would have failed entirely. Instead, the movie lives and dies within its characters, which are all perfectly embodied by their actors. Any dialogue spoken can be deemed as crucial, but the most important scenes are the ones that have very little action. Very few directors could ever pull off a movie like Stray Dogs, and that should be enough incentive for film buffs to go see this film, especially if they have seen Ming-Liang’s work before.
However, for me, the movie only works on an appreciative level. There were moments when I was entranced by what was happening, but it was more frequent for me to disconnect from the film. My problem is that, though the scenes may illicit emotions if paid attention to for long enough, there were not enough reasons compelling me to stick through the scenes. Instead, I would zone out, checking back in periodically to see if anything had happened, and then try to get into the next scene when it finally happens. Make no mistake, I realize that Stray Dogs is a piece of powerful and methodically planned out cinema, done by a director who clearly knows what he wants. The reason the film doesn’t click with me is because it lacks a strong narrative. Laying the groundwork of a story is something that would have made the long scenes easier to endure, and perhaps even enticing. Regardless, I do recommend Stray Dogs for anyone who has not seen Ming-Liang’s works, because it is definitely an interesting experience, and I will be checking out more of his works later on as well.
Screening courtesy of the Vancouver International Film Festival.