TIFF 2013: Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang, TWN/FRA)

I’ve found it very difficult to bring myself to write about this film, mainly because Tsai is and presumably always will be considered a definitively singular filmmaker, challenging convention by way of his ever-present implementation of style over outright substance. “Slow” is one word that’s been used to describe his approach, however Stray Dogs presently remains my sole point of reference as its the very first of his I’ve seen. Even still, every frame of every deliberately prolonged sequence carries with it a perceptible sense of poise – one meaningful in contributing to his established personal niche – despite an overt penchant for alienating those who aren’t immediately captivated.

Minutely chronicling the daily goings-on of a destitute family of three – one father and two children – Stray Dogs purposefully substitutes observational minimalism for traditional narrative as hardships are regularly encountered and addressed. Characteristically restrained but lacking in impact, all Tsai seems to do is illustrate what we identify by default when questioned about contemporary homelessness. From the incorrigibly savage savoring of each meal to transforming a head of cabbage into the only attainable semblance of a child’s plaything, the film certainly has a way with circumstantial authenticity as it assuredly avoids the acquisition of new Tsai admirers, myself included.

In fact, it’s Stray Dogs‘ key latter sequences that carry with them what could be construed as poignancy, a potential reasoning behind the central family’s predicament unearthed at – as to be expected – Tsai’s own pace. While potentially indecipherable given a lack of tangible contributing context, what plays out is arguably open for interpretation as a now-present and obviously distant female entity suggests a correlation between certain moments, the most recognizable of which involves the voracious consumption/desecration of an aforementioned and identifiably feminine cabbage doll.

Without revealing too much, Tsai’s latest feature seems to unashamedly pander to his established fanbase but to what to degree I’ll never know, at least until I further familiarize myself with the Taiwanese auteur’s lauded preceding efforts. Teetering on banal throughout its initial two-thirds, Stray Dogs‘ perception of an agreeably timely if unfortunate way of living embraces visual presentation over originality, a decidedly game-changing string of final sequences shedding light on this familial plight’s onset. As sometimes unbearably minimalistic human drama, Stray Dogs is admirably and stylistically unprecedented if strenuous viewing, more specifically that of which either will or won’t reward those who remain patient and accepting of Tsai’s presentational idiosyncrasies.

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