Dialogues: Tsai Ming-liang's "Stray Dogs"

Adam Cook & Daniel Kasman discuss the latest film from Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang.
Daniel Kasman, Adam Cook

STRAY DOGS (Tsai Ming-Liang, Taiwan)

From the Toronto International Film Festival, Adam Cook and Daniel Kasman continue our series of festival dialogues. After winning the Grand Jury Prize in Venice, Tsai Ming-liang's Stray Dogshad its North American premiere in TIFF's Wavelengths section.

DANIEL KASMAN: It sounds foolish to say this, as I feel I’ve been saying it often about some filmmakers (Claire Denis, James Gray and the latest Hong, for example), but I was caught off-guard by the restrained scale of Tsai Ming-liang’s new film. After going to Malaysia for I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone and the director's epic trip to France for Visage, I wasn’t sure what he would do next as a feature. I should have taken a cue from the director’s discreet, very focused and increasingly minimal experiments with short form digital works (see this and this). Stray Dogs has a slim focus and a very basic—but exceeding beautiful—structure, which I think comes out of these digital forays, laid across the expansive canvas (social, realist, spatial, fictional) possible in a long film. 

ADAM COOK: Absolutely: once you see it makes total sense that this is the feature he would make now, a synthesis of old and new styles and themes. There’s a conscious play here with expectations and tropes within his own cinema. I spent much of the film waiting for certain elements to appear: water, pop songs. The former of which exists exclusively aurally before making a sudden, emphatic appearance. Tsai is so brilliant at only barely creating a narrative, and yet creating fully lived-in spaces, heartbreaking characters, and moving, intimate moments. In spite of this being one of his most somber pictures, I still found slivers of humour throughout. If he wanted to, he could make incredible comedies: it feels as if his style could burst into that mode at anytime, similar to the way something like Johnnie To’s Sparrow feels like it could burst into a musical at any moment.

DK: "Fully lived in spaces"—I was thinking this too, that the space of each shot was "precious," that is, used by its inhabitants, occupied and often, even, needed. The story is a sentimental one of lone parents and unkempt children: Lee Kang-sheng is a homeless single father of a young girl and a slightly older boy (Tsai's godchildren, in fact), both of whom wander the outskirts and commercial centers of a city while their father earns a pittance holding roadside signs advertising new housing developments. As you say, some of the expected Tsai phantasmagoria seems missing, but actually I think it's just underplayed, masterfully, with the alien gleam of supermarkets and new apartments counterposed against ashen, drippy urban ruins and strange, almost magical swathes of nature right outside the city. Tsai's digital camera, while often holding its characteristically dry/wry distance, is now adventuring into closer and stranger places: incredible close-ups of faces are major highlights in the work, including a jaw-dropping, simple-as-pie long take of two faces at the end of the film, during which, for me, nearly the entire film re-played in my mind, and was re-evaluated. He is also showing more audacious camera placements, especially in a windowless grocery store shot to emphasize its sleek inhuman abundance. One particular shot there struck me, a Vampyr-like placement of the camera inside a freezer unit through which we can see shoppers and one of the film's two mysterious female specters, Lu Yi-Ching. A typical Tsai loner, she is drawn to the wanderings of the young daughter in her store. She exists as a strange, ghost-mirror version of Lee's absent lover (or wife), Chen Shiang-chyi, who is not shown in the story proper but is conjured up in indelible and haunting visions that bookend the central story and shade in the cryptic sadnesses of Stray Dogs' restrained telling.

AC: I'm glad you brought up the close-ups, as I feel digital cameras reveal different qualities, emotions, and connotations with how they represent faces with the veil of celluloid stripped away, leaving the texture of faces more vulnerable. Tsai takes full advantage of this, bringing out such an intensity of feeling from his actors. His camera dwells on them for minutes at a time, and it feels if he did so forever it would never cease resonating powerfully. The mise en scène may be very meticulous and stylized, but the figures who operate within it feel so real, so close. Tsai's compositions here are indeed adventurous, a couple canted angle shots come to mind that turn spaces into oppressive landscapes, labyrinths even, that imprison the characters. In one scene that feels disconnected from all the others because its architecture is so foreign to the spaces these people usually inhabit, Lee Kang-sheng wanders into a seemingly abandoned rich person's home, a multi-floor, spiral staircased, white-walled modern nightmare—with a comfortable bed (unlike the one he shares with his two children in a decrepit building) that for once he can get some real rest in.

DK: A luxurious, unreal rest without the implications of alcoholism and...—murder?—suggested by his repose in that multi-chambered, unnavigable building, full of leaks, stray dogs and an enigmatic charcoal mural of the countryside, in which his fractured family lives and sleeps. Lee's pristine rest seems a false sleep, unfair? The kids certainly don't get to sleep like that; but then again they don't seem to suffer the psychic despair haunting Lee, expressed so vividly in his (first) recitation and (then) singing of what is, according to Shelly Kraicer's correspondence with the director, a Southern Song Dynasty poem by General Yue Fei, "Man Jiang Hong". This psychic pain seems to be the mysterious force driving Stray Dogs, a force which leads it to a final act narrative—and even stylistic, to a degree—gesture into the territory of David Lynch. But certainly the tenderness, melancholy, and patience drawn from this final bizarre blip in time and lateral move into memory's (and pain's) no man's land is purely Tsai.

AC: It's a heartbreaking moment in some ways, this rest outside of the father's sphere of responsibility, an escape, a betrayal. But yes, he is the most burdened character, dealing alone with the realities of his family's situation, his children too young to fully understand. Shelly was talking to me to how the film just expands and expands as it goes on, and it's very true that the film's seemingly narrow beginning point becomes more and more suggestive, not by widening its scope but by honing in on these figures and their emotions. Shelly also claimed the film continues this expansion after the film ends and—it bears mentioning we've chipped away at this dialogue over several days after seeing the film—indeed Stray Dogs is becoming this echo for me that I keep hearing even as I see more films here at the festival. This is indicative of how the power of Tsai's films seems to grow in retrospect. I'm sometimes surprised to rediscover how small and intimate his films actually are; when I watch them they feel infinite somehow, there's so much left to suggestion and mystery that it's easy to forget that the core of Tsai Ming-liang's cinema put simply is people in spaces, alone (even when they're not).

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