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Review: 'Stray Dogs' is more about amazing long takes than social commentary

The latest from Taiwenese long take master Tsai Ming-liang, "Stray Dogs" follows a homeless family through a series of arresting tableau-style shots.

Lee Kang-sheng and Chen Shiang-chyi pose during one of "Stray Dogs"' many mesmerizing long takes. Credit: Cinema Guild Lee Kang-sheng and Chen Shiang-chyi pose during one of "Stray Dogs"' many mesmerizing long takes.
Credit: Cinema Guild

‘Stray Dogs’
Director: Tsai Ming-liang
Stars: Lee Kang-sheng, Chen Shiang-chyi
Rating: NR
4 (out of 5) Globes

It’s not always fair to say this, given all he’s capable of, but the main distinguishing trait of Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang has long been his atypically long long takes. Every film features a handful (sometimes more, sometimes nothing but) scenes that burn several minutes — or longer — with a single, unmoving shot staring at action that can sometimes not even be called an action. “Vive L’Amour” climaxed with a 10-minute shot of one of its stars crying. Perhaps his best known work in America, “What Time is it There?” boasted lengthy images of its star, Tsai regular Lee Kang-sheng, banging a wristwatch against a metal pole.

On this front, “Stray Dogs,” his latest, does not disappoint. The penitent are rewarded with two consecutive epics that eat up what could loosely be described (because this isn’t exactly a story-movie) as the third act. They’re among his best, which is to say they’re super-ascetic: They find characters who don’t even move (save to periodically nurse a hotel room liquor bottle), each minute crawling by like some cheeky endurance test. Tsai is doing much, much more than messing with viewers for a laugh, but the laugh is present. There’s always been an element of humor to Tsai’s work, but recently he’s been upping the ante: He followed “Stray Dogs” with the hour-long “Journey to the West,” which — with its monk slowly traversing busy public spaces and “Where’s Waldo?” game-playing — is the closest thing he’s made to a laugh riot.

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Lu Yi-ching plays a mysterious woman who takes care of the children in "Stray Dogs." Credit: Cinema Guild Lu Yi-ching plays a mysterious woman who takes care of the children in "Stray Dogs."
Credit: Cinema Guild

But there’s something else in “Stray Dogs”: It’s the first of his work to look even slightly like a work of Importance. Tsai has connected his aggressively stylized to the real world before: Both “The Hole” and “The Wayward Cloud” consider environmental issues (however obliquely) and lack of human interaction. But at first blush “Stray Dogs” looks like an actual work of social importance. His never-named, barely-defined characters — as always, led by Lee Kang-sheng — are homeless, struggling to get by in bustling Taipei. Lee plays a father whose job is holding signs. They wash in public bathrooms. The kids spend their days in a neon-bleeding supermarket that looks like a children’s playground from a chintzy sci-fi movie.

If this is indeed social critique, then it’s one that’s not committed to Saying Something. Tsai’s films are more about conveying a state of being: of showing human warmth (“I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone”), human coldness (the porn-heavy “The Wayward Cloud”), human tension (“The River,” which climaxes with a lengthy bout of incest). If “Stray Dogs” is about anything it’s about a permanent, incurable state of rootlessness. Around the halfway mark one character — a woman who sometimes tended to Lee’s kids — disappears and is replaced, if you will, by another woman who may be their actual mother.

None of this is made explicit (in fact, there’s almost no dialogue, and none particularly worth paying attention to). Everything is in flux but when things change they remain roughly the same. When Lee and fam wind up with housing, it’s in a dilapidated, seemingly abandoned building where rain freely pours in — an only slight step-up from living on the streets. If Tsai is after anything, it’s to see if his tableaux, hypnotic style can withstand being placed in the dregs of the real world. And if you know Tsai’s work, you won’t be surprised when his consistently mesmerizing style handily defeats commentary. See it on the biggest screen you can.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
 
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