All of Tsai Ming-Liang’s characters are strays, drifters and outcasts that are prone to following other strays in search of connection, occasionally committing unsolicited acts of kindness or petty violence in their random encounters. Given that its title essentially summarises this oeuvre, Stray Dogs is unsurprisingly regarded to exist purely for established fans of the director. Indeed, it contains most of the hallmarks of Tsai’s cinema, particularly the focus on the least glamorous quarters of Taipei, the gradual pacing punctuated by strange behaviour, and the full scenes captured by stunning master shots. And while it’s hard to reject those components – the very aspects that create fans of the director in the first place – it’s also hard to justify the extremity with which they’re utilised in this film as little more than self-indulgence.
That isn’t to say that Stray Dogs isn’t a poignant and moving experience, but it is to say that with a less cohesive narrative and a more demanding pace, it’s as though Tsai has provided a tougher challenge for those who have tackled his earlier filmography; think of it as ‘expert mode’ compared to Goodbye Dragon Inn‘s ‘medium’. Adding to the film’s enhanced difficulty is the absence of humour, which forfeits the spark that elevated What Time is it There? above Tsai’s prior works and promoted him to the upper ranks of the Taiwanese second wave. What Stray Dogs supposedly boasts instead is its closing sequence, an actionless pair of ten-minute shots that isn’t nearly as good as Tsai seems to think it is. Others have called it the triumph of his career thus far – and the acting is certainly fantastic in it – but other than that it’s simply a more pretentious and less effective version of Vive l’Amour‘s finale, in which Yang Kuei-Mei gradually descends into tears over the burden of her painfully underwhelming existence.
Despite this unusual stylistic self-consciousness, Stray Dogs nevertheless generates considerable beauty by painstakingly pouring over the lowly lives of an incredibly impoverished family, squatting in a deeply dilapidated, erstwhile abandoned apartment building. In this, Tsai has come full circle from the very beginning of his career, as the damp-ridden walls call to mind the flooded living area seen throughout Rebels of the Neon God. Like those earlier movies in particular, Stray Dogs presents Taipei as an overcrowded metropolis, gruelling for the poor and pervaded by relentlessly muggy weather. The insignificance of its characters’ lives is once again reflected by the impeccably chosen locations and pathetic fallacy, but most effectively by Tsai favourite Lee Kang-Sheng, who entered Rebels as a mournfully aimless young man and appears here, almost a quarter of a century later, as a weathered father approaching middle-age with only emptiness to show for his entire life.
To view Tsai’s filmography chronologically would lead to this as Lee’s most powerful performance, one informed by all the others he has provided for this director by playing similarly despondent characters. (Interestingly, Stray Dogs is the first Tsai film in which Lee does not play a character named Hsaio-kang). The award goes to the lead, but not to the director whose focus appears to have itself strayed somewhere along the line. Stray Dogs is a vanity project, a reflection upon an impressive career to be shared between the director and those who have followed him this far. Count yours truly as a fan, albeit one disappointed by Tsai’s change of direction; he has moved from a worldview that so heartwarmingly illuminated the losers of Taiwan’s bustling capital to one that gazes inwardly, thus sacrificing much of the greatness that these visual ideas could have built. By all means, check out his earlier works if you haven’t already – particularly the fantastic What Time is it There? – before returning to Stray Dogs, the members-only section of the Tsai Ming-Liang universe, and a lesser imprint of all that has come before.