I have seen all of Tsai’s films, apart from Rebels of the Neon God, which still sits comfortably on my watch list. The sad thing about this is the fact that I haven’t seen a single one of them on a big screen. I always wished to see one of his films in cinema. His cinematography is superb and particularly attractive for someone who loves the art of photography. I came close last year, but the organisers of the Glasgow Film Festival had to pull Tsai’s Walker because the print didn’t arrive in time. Slow film, slow print delivery.
Patience is a virtue, so I was able to see a Tsai film on a big screen after all. It was a fabulous experience on the one hand, but mixed into this positive feeling was a pinch of sadness. First of all, Stray Dogs is in some ways different from his other films. There are, for instance, scenes set in nature – in a forest, with peaceful ambient background sounds. This isn’t Tsai and has never been Tsai. He has always been the only slow-film director who used the urban rather than the rural as a backdrop for his films. It therefore felt strange at times, but this was only the case because I was used to cramped spaces, deafening noises of the city, etc In fact, the nature shots – there is one in which the two children walk through a forest – worked well as a juxtaposition of city and nature. The sudden noises of the city following ambient nature sounds have a similar effect to Lav Diaz’s play with sound and silence in Florentina Hubaldo. It not only wakes up the viewer (in case s/he fell asleep). It is a comment on the suffocation in the city, a kind of suffocation Tsai’s characters have endured for over twenty years.
Their endurance, as we can see throughout the film, has taken its toll. A lot of writing on Slow Cinema concerns the absence or lack of pretty much everything. The catch word is “nothing” in the debate of slow films. I don’t like the context in which the word “nothing” is used, because I think that there is a lot happening in slow films. We merely make the mistake of comparing them to action-driven Hollywood blockbusters, forgetting at the same time that slow films show the everyday, and that our lives are not action-driven Hollywood blockbusters.
Nevertheless, I had the word “nothing” in my head throughout the film. It is perhaps better to use the term “emptiness” here. What struck me was the foregrounding of emptiness in Stray Dogs. Tsai’s characters have always been empty, searching for something. Emotions often ran high, but the problem was the set-up of human relationships. Somehow, all characters started off as being lonely, and ended up being lonely again. Stray Dogs stresses this very point. Lee Kang-sheng, Tsai’s long-time collaborator, has nothing left to show, or to do. There’s nothing left inside him. I found him to be an empty shell. A shadow of himself perhaps, understandable given his twenty-year ordeal as a character who just can’t find what he is looking for. Lee’s in a desperate, desolate shape, which makes you want to hug him after you spend so much time with him.
If you have seen Tsai’s other films, you will miss the rather uplifting scenes of, at times, ridiculous musical numbers, such as in The Wayward Cloud. You will also miss the very subtle sense of humour built into films that leave not only the characters depressed at the end. This time, Tsai did not conceal anything. He tackles issues of poverty, loss, despair and hopelessness head on. This makes it a particularly painful watch if you’re used to his usual approach. I thought that Béla Tarr’s farewell film The Turin Horse was bleak. But Tsai topped the Hungarian master, and possibly himself.
It is true, this film can only stand at the end of a career in feature-filmmaking. Tsai continues to work on his short films (the Walker series), but he has expressed his desire to retire from making feature films. At the Q&A with Tarr after the screening of The Turin Horse at the Edinburgh Film Festival, I remember that Tarr said there was nothing left to say. I agree with it wholeheartedly. I have the exact same feeling about Tsai’s Stray Dogs. Another film just wouldn’t make sense. The lead character of all of his films has reached the bottom of existence. Dragging him down more would be impossible. Tsai could choose a different lead actor and continue to make feature films, but he wouldn’t be Tsai if he did this.
Stray Dogs contains several references to Tsai’s previous films. It felt like a compilation, a kind of “let’s bring the best of the best together for a final piece”. A Best-Of film, if you want, at least visually. I remember one high-angle shot over a park or something (my memory is fading), which looked exactly like the high-angle shot in Paris that appears in What Time Is It There? It was a visual journey through Tsai’s filmmaking. And indeed, visual it was. I found that Tsai topped himself in his cinematography this time. He was always one of my favourites with regards to cinematography. But Stray Dogs – oh my. I would have loved to take photographs, to be honest, but I would have probably been arrested. In fact, seeing this film gave me an idea for a journal article. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time for it right now. Here we are again: patience is a virtue.
Stray Dogs is a powerful farewell from cinema. Tsai has certainly put the idea of slowness to the extreme in this film, especially at the end. It was a rather slow and therefore brutal parallel to Lee’s endurance in twenty-years as an empty character. The film leaves you empty, and in a way, it’s an emptiness that cannot and will never be filled with Tsai retiring from filmmaking. How is that for a zig-zag reference to The Hole?