Dispatches from the MSPIFF—Part Two

Stray Dogs
**** (out of 4 stars)
SONY DSCThough I still have a large number of films yet to see, I suspect that Tsai Ming-Liang’s Stray Dogs might be the most audacious film I will see at this year’s film festival, if not this year. The story, what there is of one, centers on a homeless man and his two children as they fend for themselves in the urban wastelands of Taipei and their entanglement with the life of a generous woman who works at a nearby store. Tsai is known for his long, luxurious takes, and in Stray Dogs, he takes that tendency to breathtaking extremes, as in the bravura scene in which the man and woman stand in an empty room in the dilapidated building where the woman lives, in front of a drawing of mountains that is off-frame, for about ten minutes. The range of emotions the characters experience—loneliness, hope, regret, uneasiness—makes what, on the surface, is a static scene pulse with life. In fact, it is in the pacing of the film with its sparse editing and abundant silence, along with carefully framed images that are often quite beautiful, that the movie casts its spell. Moreover, though not unfolding in a manner that is either explicitly psychological—we see these characters from the outside, their actions, expressions, and what little they say giving us glimpses into who they might be—or social, the film manages to be both. We not only see the family in domestic situations like sharing a meal or readying themselves for bed, but we also see the father working, and the impoverished family wandering through the showy affluence of Taipei before sliding back into the empty, ruined spaces where they live. Reportedly, this is Tsai’s final film, and in those scenes in which very little moves and sounds barely murmur, there is a sense of emptying out in the movie that is elegiac, as if the film itself were saying goodbye to film.

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