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.