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NYFF51 Spotlight: Raining Cats and “Stray Dogs”

When it rains, it pours in filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang's contemplative family drama Stray Dogs. The film's overcast, frequently drenched setting, serving as both metaphor and physical deterrent, allows for an impressive range of urban mise en scene. The dirty and often decaying city sights provide a bridge for Tsai to draw powerful emotional connections between the streets and their occupants.

A co-production of Taiwan and France, Stray Dogs, which recently won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, focuses on a family struggling to survive. Living in a decrepit, abandoned building, the family eats their dinner together sitting over city traffic and washes up for bed in public restrooms. The father (Lee Kang-sheng) makes a living by trekking out to street corners to hold up apartment rental advertisements. His poncho clings to him as the wind roars violently, and Tsai shoots in close-up to historically contextualize (and politicize) the worker's predicament.

“The shame of defeat is not yet washed away,” the man recites to himself in defiance. “When will the grief of the Empire's subjects end? May our chariots of war be launched at the borders. May the soldiers wallow in the flesh of the Barbarians. May they quench their thirst on the blood of the Xiongnu. When our peaks and rivers are conquered once more, The Emperor will receive our homage.”

The children, Yi-cheng and Yi-chieh, spend their time wandering amongst the hustle and bustle of a nearby supermarket. A place of safety, the kids fill their stomachs with a plethora of free samples. Soon after, the adolescent daughter brings home a cabbage as the newest and oddly important member of the family. All the while, a female employee takes an interest in the children for reasons not made clear at first. The film's screenplay, written by Tsai, Tung Cheng Yu and Peng Fei, guards some secrets along the way.

Stray Dogs is a quiet film, its visual style taking time to enrich the viewing experience. Lengthy shots make their presence known, culminating in a 14-minute take in which the camera sits still as we focus on two actors and their impeccably framed, grief-stricken and expressive faces. The duration of these moments allows for subtle acting choices and an appreciated awareness of space. With our senses in tip-top shape, we become much more keen to the sounds Tsai uses to enhance the aura. He is giving the viewer choices: which direction to draw your attention to, whose face to study, what to listen for, etc. The viewer is a necessary observer, thus enhancing the participatory nature of his filmmaking.

Asked to do some heavy lifting, these performers are fearless in their execution. One needn't look any further than the previously mentioned scene—or one involving the emotionally-draining dismantling of the daughter's cabbage—for proof. Even the children, when laughing uproariously over what to name their edible family member, show a real commitment to the scene's dynamics.

Giving an overwhelmingly positive take of the film, Little White Lies wrote, “Though easily chalked up as a tough, obtuse art movie which punishes its audience with a refusal to conform to traditional cinematic grammar, Stray Dogs is in fact simplicity itself. As the title plainly puts it, this is a film which addresses the grueling daily trails of the Taiwanese underclass by presenting them as a pack of roving mutts, scavenging for food, blithely blurring the line between private and public spaces, existing on the fringes, indifferent to the elements, ignored by everyone. The film is the direct articulation of that idea.”

Stray Dogs
Director: Tsai Ming-Liang

Section: Official Selection
Screens: October 3 at 7:30pm + October 7 at 12:00pm

NYFF Official Description:
In the newest film from Tsai Ming-liang, a single father (Tsai mainstay Lee Kang-sheng) makes his meager living holding up an advertising placard on a traffic island in the middle of a busy highway. His children (Lu Yi-ching and Li Yi-cheng) wait out their days in supermarkets before they eat with their father and go to sleep in an abandoned building. As the father starts to come apart, a woman in the supermarket (Chen Shiang-chyi, also a Tsai regular) takes the children under her wing. There are real stray dogs to be fed in Tsai’s everyday apocalypse, but the title also refers to its principal characters, living the cruelest of existences on the ragged edges of the modern world. Stray Dogs is many things at once: minimal in its narrative content and syntax, as visually powerful as it is emotionally overwhelming, and bracingly pure in both its anger and its compassion. One of the finest works of an extraordinary artist.

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