×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Venice Film Review: ‘Stray Dogs’

Tsai Ming-liang's family portrait will be adored by his hardcore devotees and precisely no one else.

With:

Lee Kang-sheng, Lee Yi-chieh, Lee Yi-cheng, Yang Kuei-mei, Lu Yi-ching, Chen Shiang-chyi, Wu Jin Kai. (Mandarin dialogue)

From its lengthy, pace-setting opening shot, “Stray Dogs” spends an inordinate amount of time watching its characters sleep onscreen — which is just as well, since unsuspecting viewers may spend an inordinate amount of time sleeping in front of it. An aggressively taciturn family portrait (“drama” isn’t quite the term) set in the social and physical margins of Taipei, where even the rain seems to fall a little harder than it does for everyone else, this undeniably committed assemblage of long takes, desolate gazes and striking concrete architecture lacks the demented lyricism of more engaging Tsai works “The Wayward Cloud” or even 2009’s barely distributed “Face.” Sure to be adored by the director’s hardcore devotees — and precisely no one else — the pic may be best suited to the gallery circuit. 

“I have become tired of cinema,” Tsai rather grandly announces in the press notes for his latest, adding that he has no interest in making “the kinds of films that expect the patronage of cinema audiences.” Viewed as a corroborating statement in that manifesto, “Stray Dogs” works with effective perversity: Never the most broadly accessible of filmmakers, Tsai here seems to be stripping his ornately eccentric style down to formal fundamentals. A certain pictorial grace remains; his sense of humor, sadly, appears to have been largely tossed out with the bathwater.

The film opens on the image of an elegant, initially faceless young woman (Yang Kuei-mei) repeatedly brushing her lustrous mane of hair as two kids we presume are her own (real-life siblings Lee Yi-chieh and Lee Yi-cheng, the director’s godchildren) snore soundly behind her. It’s a witchily seductive image held just long enough to be hypnotic, though the film’s showpiece shots will get longer and less compelling from there. The woman disappears for the remainder of the film, though her character returns in the guise of two other actresses — a gambit likely to fox even diligent arthouse audiences, who could easily be forgiven for puzzling over the family structure of this semi-broken home.

For the film’s first half, at least, it’s the disenfranchised man of the house (Lee Kang-sheng, real-life uncle to his onscreen offspring) who drives what we shall call, for the sake of convenience, the action. Introduced while braving the elements as a human signpost at a busy intersection — where we shall visit him on several further occasions — he appears to have been left to fend on his own for the children.

This mode of largely wordless breadline realism, complete with solemn smoke breaks and outdoor urination, is sustained until a scene that is sure to be the film’s talked-about creative coup: an 11-minute take in which our unnamed hero by turn smothers, eats and nurses a whole cabbage found in his bed, weeping all the while. Cole-crop asphyxiation is a psychological low from which any man can only recover, and the film’s more enigmatic remainder does seemingly take the family to a point of reparation — though this bizarre emotional pivot doesn’t prompt anything so cathartic as a full tilt into madness. There is, however, at least one longer take to come, all stoic silence complete with single tear rolling down a character’s cheek; Tsai’s self-professed rejection of cinema, it seems, does not require a rejection of sentimentality.

Cinematographers Liao Pen-jung and Sung Wen Zhong assist their helmer’s vision with a series of carefully but not pristinely composed tableaux, intentionally dank lighting schemes occasionally merging the actors with the soiled, industrial surfaces of the production design by Masa Liu and the director. Outstanding on-location sound work, attuned to the actors’ every breath and the passing of every car, fills in for any score, though we are treated — twice in a row — to the leading man’s off-key rendition of a rousing anthem from the Southern Song Dynasty. “My exploits are naught but mud and dust,” he sings; one hopes Tsai hasn’t taken these lyrics too much to heart.

Popular on Variety

Venice Film Review: 'Stray Dogs'

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 4, 2013. (Also in Toronto Film Festival — Wavelengths.) Running time: 136 MIN. Original title: "Jiaoyou"

Production:

(Taiwan-France) A Homegreen Films, JBA Prods. production in association with House On Fire, Urban Distribution Intl. (International sales: Urban Distribution Intl., Montreuil.) Produced by Vincent Wang. Co-producers, Jacques Bidou, Marianne Dumoulin.

Crew:

Directed by Tsai Ming-liang. Screenplay, Tung Cheng Yu, Peng Fei, Tsai. Camera (color), Liao Pen-jung, Sung Wen Zhong; editor, Lei Zhenqing; production designer, Masa Liu, Tsai; set decorator, Li Yufeng; costume designer, Wang Chia Hui; sound, Mark Ford; assistant director, Feng Fiu.

With:

Lee Kang-sheng, Lee Yi-chieh, Lee Yi-cheng, Yang Kuei-mei, Lu Yi-ching, Chen Shiang-chyi, Wu Jin Kai. (Mandarin dialogue)

More Film

  • Global Screen Nabs ‘Amazing Maurice,’ Based

    Global Screen Picks Up ‘The Amazing Maurice,’ Based on Terry Pratchett’s Novel (EXCLUSIVE)

    Global Screen has picked up worldwide distribution rights, excluding North America, the U.K. and German-speaking territories, to the English-language animated feature “The Amazing Maurice,” based on a Terry Pratchett novel. The screenplay has been written by Terry Rossio, Oscar-nominated for “Shrek.” Rossio’s credits also include the animated movie “Aladdin” and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” [...]

  • Yoji Yamada-directed film is to open

    Tokyo Market: Shochiku Launches Horror, Comedy and Mystery Lineup

    Major Japanese studio, Shochiku has the honor of leading off next week’s Tokyo International Film Festival with its “Tora-san, Wish You Were Here.” The film is a revival of a beloved in-house drama franchise, directed by veteran Yoji Yamada, that is set as the event’s opening night gala presentation. Before that, the company has the [...]

  • The Truth

    Singapore Festival to Focus on Asian Excellence for 30th Edition

    For its 30th edition the Singapore International Film Festival has avoided programming novelty and instead focused on assembling excellence – mostly indie titles — from Asia and further afield. The festival, which previously announced local filmmaker Anthony Chen’s second feature “Wet Season” as its opening night gala presentation, announced the balance of its programming on [...]

  • Isabela Moner Dora the Explorer

    Film News Roundup: Isabela Merced Boards Jason Momoa's 'Sweet Girl' for Netflix

    In today’s film news roundup, Isabela Merced get cast opposite Jason Momoa, “Starbright” gets financing and AFM announces its speakers. CASTING Isabela Merced, formerly Isabela Moner, has come on board to portray the daughter of Jason Momoa in his upcoming revenge thriller “Sweet Girl” for Netflix. Momoa will play a devastated man who vows to [...]

  • Walt Disney HQ LA

    Disney Seeks to Throw Out Gender Pay Gap Lawsuit

    The Walt Disney Co. is seeking to throw out a lawsuit alleging that women employees are paid less than men, arguing that the suit is too sprawling and unwieldy to handle as a class action. Andrus Anderson LLP filed the suit in April, alleging that Disney’s hiring and pay practices have a discriminatory effect on [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content