Man With No Name – Wang Bing (2010)

Anonymity and intimacy – these two characteristics work hand in hand in Wang Bing’s Man With No Name (2010), which is a mere glimpse of the life of a hermit, given the director’s otherwise very extensive and lengthy observations of people in their given environment. With a running time of around 90 minutes, one could almost describe it as a “normal” film. At the same time, Wang Bing’s normality differs from that of the standard viewer, showing this again and again, most recently with his eight-hour long documentary Dead Souls, which runs at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival. Man with no name feels like an insert, perhaps a bookmark or even a pause. A pause in which the director follows an anonymous subject and creates an intimate portrait of a man, of whom we know nothing but with whom we spend enough time to feel as though we’ve known him all our life.

Wang Bing’s sixth film has no beginning and no end. This negation that finds its expression already in the film title is one of the main forces throughout this observational documentary that jumps right in there, right into the heart of the story, if there was any. Wang Bing doesn’t introduce the man we’ll follow for the following ninety minutes. Stylistically, this is great, and yet it wasn’t so much by choice the director has done this. It was a necessity. The hermit he became fascinated with while shooting for another film simply did not speak. Even when Wang Bing asked him if it was okay to film him, he didn’t respond. If I remember correctly from a text I read not so long ago, the man merely responded by looking into the director’s eyes. And that was it.

All there was for Wang Bing was what he could observe. The man, perhaps in his fifties or sixties, has no name, no history, no personal stories. He is what he is: a man without a name. In a style that reminds one of West of the Tracks (2003), Wang Bing often follows the man wherever he goes. Staying behind, literally just following him, the director establishes a distance between himself and the man, but also between us and the man. He positions him in his natural environment with long and mobile shots. Over time, it becomes a film as much about the natural surrounding as it is about a man living in it and making use of it. The man uses what he can find to survive, to feed himself, to protect himself from the weather. His cave is his home, his kitchen, his bed. The cave is a microcosm in which everything and nothing happens. We have three meals with the man. Wang Bing takes us into the cave, shows us how the man cuts vegetables he’s harvested with a pair of scissors, shows us how he cooks with broken pans and little else.

Nothing seems in a good shape. Everything is used, damaged, dirty. Wang Bing doesn’t paint a utopian picture, but shows life in this man’s microcosm as it is. And in doing so, he creates a remarkable admiration of some kind. An admiration of a man who has (possibly) left everything behind, who lives in solitude, removed from civilisation, in the middle of nowhere but who sustains himself without seeming to bother. Instead, it looks as though the man enjoys his freedom. Yes, if there is perhaps a third characteristic of the film – on top of anonymity and intimacy – then it must be the idea of freedom. The hermit doesn’t speak. Nor does he communicate through other ways. But the longer we stay with him, the more we get the feeling that the man is not outwardly unhappy. It feels more like a film that places a genuine emphasis on breathing space. One cannot neglect the important aspect of time and duration in Man with no name. Nevertheless, I believe that the film is more about space (in its many forms) than it is about time. It is, in some ways, an ode to space, to emptiness, to absence…and it all begins with the title.

The fact that there is no dialogue makes the film appear much slower than Wang Bing’s other films. Usually, the absence of dialogue gives way to ambient noise. Man with no name gives way to very little. We don’t hear birds, or anything else that would make us think of life. Sometimes we hear a few steps on the ground, and we also hear the heavy rain plunging from the sky towards the end of the film. But besides this, there is little else. The soundscape seems as empty as the surrounding environment. Sound tends to make us perceive the narrative progression as being faster. Dialogues, monologues, music – everything that attracts the ear is perceived faster than a collection of still images. However, it is the latter which Wang Bing focuses on. Time is seemingly stretched. It seems slower. It feels as though it is running at a different pace. And indeed, I had to think of an interview I had heard on the radio with a scientist whose name I sadly cannot remember. He said that it had been proven that time was running slower in the mountains (where our hermit is living) than in the plain. It is a very small, barely perceptible difference, which only shows on our mechanical clocks after at least 10 years. Nevertheless, it is a fact that time is different in different places. While watching the film, I could feel this difference for the first time.

I have to say that I was not a fan of what I saw at the beginning, but I became more and more enveloped by Wang Bing’s footage. I began to marvel about the idea of freedom, of the return to a life where man and nature live in harmony. For me, it was this aspect that stood out in the end, a feeling of longing in some ways, something that is easier to achieve if you’re surrounded by nothingness, regardless in what form. I believe that Man with no name is, in its very simplicity, one of the best Wang Bing films (albeit they’re all good!) and I might actually see it again!

The art of emptiness – Itzhak Goldberg (ed, 2017)

After a rather long break from writing due to health reasons, I’m trying to embark on finally writing something about that book I bought last year, which intrigued me with its title. My avid readers might remember just how keen I am to link painting (or static art in general) to Slow Cinema. Not because I think that they’re the same. They cannot be. They each have their individual characteristics that sets them apart from the other. But there is this use of empty frames, of static frames, of little to no dialogue in slow films that has always reminded me of standing in a gallery in front of a painting, contemplating the scenery I see in my own time.

Like almost all French books I have so far bought for reviewing on this blog, L’art du vide (2017) is the result of a colloqium on the subject which united scholars and artists alike. The book contains chapters on paintings, drawings, even animation films and one chapter that I really enjoyed titled “The dimension of absence in contemporary art”, written by Nadia Barrientos. Some of you might know the works by Jean-Luc Nancy, French philosopher, who also wrote a preface to the book, in which he states that we cannot penetrate emptiness. It is emptiness that penetrates us, pierces through us, and it’s not so much that it leaves emptiness behind. Emptiness means, in fact, fullness. It’s this Chinese adage, which I had read about during my PhD research: emptiness and fullness complement one another. One cannot exist without the other.

This is, as Nancy demonstrates with several examples, clearer in the French language than in English. I was quite baffled when I read that section, and was then glad that I could speak French. Indeed, nothingness in French doesn’t come without fullness. Nancy points out that the French word rien (nothing) comes from Latin res, whose accusative rem became rien in French. In fact, res means thing. It doesn’t mean nothing. It means thing. In French, rien therefore only becomes nothingness if you negate it: “Il n’y a rien à dire” (there is nothing to say). If you don’t negate rien, it remains a positive word.

In his introduction to the book, editor Itzhak Goldberg points out that (as I have previously argued in the context of Slow Cinema) the larger visibility of emptiness as a subject is, as such, not a recent phenomenon. Rather, emptiness has always been there, but external circumstances, such as the increased speed of our lives, make us more aware of the opposite: of slowness, of nothingness, emptiness. It’s like you searching for something to do when you’re bored. Nothingness gives way to fullness, and the other way around. In his online article about emptiness in art, André Rouillé argues – to me quite convincingly – that art has the opportunity to set itself apart from all other mediated images in a world full of images by putting emptiness (or nothingness) at their centre. According to Rouillé, the media are condemned to be fast all the time. It is about grabbing the spectator, about reporting first about an important event. It is, as he says, all about the spectacle, which makes me think of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and his own comments on it. In any case, Rouillé suggests that art can function as the antidote of this ever-increasing speed, which is being normalised by the (spectacle of the) media.

I think what resonates strongly with Slow Cinema and my work on it, is a quote by Norman McLaren Goldberg uses in order to strengthen his own arguments of emptiness being a central part of art. McLaren famously said that it’s not the image that is important, but what can be found between the images. It’s not so much about showing, but about suggesting, and in order to suggest something on a screen, you have to use nothingness. you have to use the off, something that isn’t there, something that isn’t easy to grasp at first. A great deal of slow film directors use this strategy in order to engage the viewer in their films’ stories. If I speak about the use of absence, as I have called it throughout my work, I inevitably think of Lav Diaz and his magnificent use of the off in order to suggest trauma and create an almost slo-mo progression of narrative. But, Goldberg argues correctly, the use of nothingness (or absence) confronts the viewer with problems. Goldberg does not go into detail here. Yet, I have argued elsewhere that the problem really comes from the fact that the viewer is conditioned. S/he is used to getting everything served on a silver platter, so that s/he can enjoy a film rather than have to work in order to “get it”. This conditioning is also the reason of slow films or “empty” artworks being rejected because they do not conform to what one is used to. In the end, Goldberg argues, this is a very Western attitude: seeing is believing. Something invisible doesn’t count, isn’t worth mentioning.

I could go on about the introduction of the book, which is genuinely interesting and contains a lot of good points. But I would like to draw your attention to one chapter at least, which I found particularly fascinating. I have mentioned on this blog before that slowness/emptiness can be an antidote to anxiety induced by external factors. The hectic 24/7 we-are-always-live news is one example, but by far not the only one. What struck me in L’art du vide was the chapter on the American artist Jacques Brown, who was absolutely afraid of emptiness. He suffered from severe anxiety when he just saw an empty canvas. At one point, he wrote in his personal notes: “I died 36 times in this canvas.” He coudn’t deal with or handle a white page, an empty canvas, anything that was empty. It prevented him from creating something. If it created something, then it was utter fear and debilitating anxiety. So what did Brown do? He used old account books of his wife to draw on. Those pages were not white, not empty. He could draw freely on it without being inhibited by “the fear of emptiness”.

In her superb chapter on the aesthetics of absence in contemporary art, Nadia Barrientos writes that absence forces us to shift our attention to something that had previously escaped us. Absence functions as a reminder of something previously forgotten, and to show us this something in a new light. Absence works like silence, which is often used to enhance what has been or what should be said. I have been fascinated by something I’d perhaps call “temporary art”; a work of art that disappears after a while. In some ways, those are wonderful examples of the interaction between fullness and emptiness, combining both to generate a powerful message. Barrientos mentions 2017 by Thai artist Pratchaya Phinthong, for instance, which is a sort of mural painting written with a special ink that slowly but surely disappears the longer it is exposed to daylight. This is not only about fullness and emptiness. It is, to me, a statement about forgetting, something that happens very slowly, almost invisible until one day a certain memory is gone. As Barrientos correctly points out, Phinthong’s artwork goes against the famous adage “the medium is the message”. Here, it is the process – of change, of forgetting – that is the message, and that stands above all and invites the viewers to reflect upon this.

Nothingness, or emptiness, has, as this book shows, wide-ranging meaning. What stands out in all chapter is the idea that nothing doesn’t mean nothing. On the contrary, nothing always stands for something, and helps highlighting this particular something. The use of emptiness/absence is a way to engage a viewer, to reflect about major themes as large (but important) as humanity. Nothingness can be anxiety-inducing or soothing. It can be the centre of an artwork, or it can be one of many characteristics. Nothingness can be there from the start, or an artwork can disappear in front of a viewer’s eyes. This “nothing” is multi-facetted and more than just “nothing”. I think this is the easiest, and quickest (oh, the irony) way to describe this collection of essays!

Nothing

Certainly, I could leave this blog post blank and let you do the thinking. This is what “nothing” is there for; it allows you to fill in the gaps that others have left, deliberately or by accident. “Nothing” can be liberating.

What brought me to this post is a film I saw last night. In Praise of Nothing by Boris Mitic is is a satirical documentary about Nothing. Narrated by Iggy Popp, it’s a humorous take on our lives, on how we deal with others, with difficulties, or even with nothing. But the film also invites profound thinking if you do more than just let the film wash over you. It contains beautiful long shots, minimalist shots in most cases, a kind that one finds regularly in other slow films, although I’m not yet entirely sure whether or not I would classify this film as Slow Cinema. In the end, it matters little because In Praise of Nothing contains a lot that made me think about the more general nature of slow films and also returned me to a book I had read as part of my doctoral research, but which I have, if I remember correctly, never reviewed as such on this blog. I’m speaking of François Cheng’s Empty and Full (or Vide et plein – Le langage pictural chinois in the original French).

François Cheng’s work teaches us a lot about how to look (at something), and how to appreciate nothingness, absence and emptiness which is so common in slow films. As Iggy Popp tells us quite rightly in In Praise…, “I (nothingness) am in every shot.” And it’s true. There is always en empty section in a film frame, or even in a painting. Even seemingly “full” paintings have their areas of what I would call rest. We struggle seeing this nothingness because we have gotten used to the capitalist idea that nothing(ness) means non-profitability. Non-profitability in turn is not desired, and so everyone needs to create something in order to fit into this system, in order to take part. Nothingness often only plays a role when we are exhausted from the capitalist hamster wheel and need to slow down. Then people flock to meditation where they often learn that nothingness is profitable after all, just perhaps not in monetary value.

What I feel more and more, especially now with film submissions I receive for tao films, is that slow film directors, just like Chinese painters during the Song dynasty period, for instance, use nothingness (either through a rigorous absence or positioning a certain something in the off) in order to express the state of their soul, or that of society, or even that of the world. The films are an expression of the soul; they’re not necessarily factual or try to teach us. Cheng puts emphasis on the importance of the soul throughout his work because it is key to reading (traditional) Chinese painting (but also slow films, I find). I have never felt so many souls, have seen so many takes on the human condition than in the films I have seen for tao. They go further than the classic Slow Cinema canon we know. They genuinely align themselves (unconsciously, I’m sure!) with what Chinese painters have described all along as how they approach their work and what they intend to show. And this has nothing to do of being aware of the painters’ desires at the time, or not. It’s about putting oneself into a mindset that favours nothingness.

According to Cheng, nothingness is a crucial means to create a relationship that blends us with nature, as well as the artwork and the viewer. It is not so much that we become one, but that we become aware of the other while acknowledging that whatever it is, it is our creation. That means that, again, whatever it is it is part of us, we’re part of it. When we speak about cinema, this element of nothingness might come through strongest in experimental films which present you with little else than slowly moving blurred images. It is the idea of an experience in which we create the meaning because the director has given us nothing; how to read his/her images, how to respond to them, how to make sense of them. These films leave you with nothing, and we blend into it because only when we see such a film is the film really complete. We play an essential role.

I have mentioned several times before the concept of a “vertical axis”, which Maya Deren so wonderfully described in the context of poetic film. In Chinese cosmology it is exactly there (as opposed to the horizontal axis which is all about fullness) that nothingness and fullness interact. Fullness always comes out of nothingness, while nothingness lives on in fullness. Again, we have this blending, this dependency. And again, this is, in a good film absolutely the case as I have seen so many times in the last five years of writing for this blog and in the last two years of my watching film submissions for tao films. There is a real understanding of this interaction between nothingness and fullness that allows one to contemplate, to think, sometimes to marvel at images. it is those times “where nothing is happening” that the real fullness of a scenes comes to the fore because suddenly we notice crucial aspects of the scene we’re seeing at the moment, or others that have already passed and return to our mind. But this can only happen in nothingness and not while being bombarded with fast-cut scenes in an action movie.

There is more in Cheng’s book, but I will return to this another day as I know that not everyone likes long-reads 🙂 For now this shall suffice to give you food for thought, and do try see In Praise Of Nothing. It’s a lovely film!

Waiting

What does it mean to wait? What does “waiting” mean nowadays when everyone seems to be always, eternally busy? Are we still waiting, or have we essentially replaced waiting by simply doing stuff? I use this blog post in order to respond to a post on Geyst blog that ended with the question “what does it mean to wait?” I felt that there is plenty to say, also in regards to slow film. If waiting has perhaps indeed been almost replaced by us doing stuff in order to keep ourselves busy – while waiting for the train, the bus, a friend to arrive – then it is slow films that return us to the idea of waiting, the feeling of time standing still.

Chantal Akerman didn’t want people not to notice time passing. The point of her work was to make the viewer aware that time was passing. We notice the power of time, I would say, most often when presumably nothing is happening, exactly in moments of waiting. Time feels heavy, feels burdensome. “With my films, you’re aware of every second passing through your body”, she famously said. What is important (and characteristic of slow films) is the act of waiting, in several different ways. For one, it’s the characters who wait. Think of Lav Diaz. In Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004), I think it is, that characters are walking from one village to another, but because of the heat they take several extensive breaks. They sit in the shadow, simply waiting for the sun to subside. Diaz said once that this was characteristic of the Filipinos. The heat, the humidity – it’s too much, so people sit down and wait for the heat to subside. They wait, doing nothing.

Béla Tarr…what would Slow Cinema be without Béla Tarr? The endless, now almost characteristic scenes of people in front of windows, looking outside, looking for nothing in particular. They just sit and watch. We don’t know whether they wait for something to happen, or whether they just stop and allow time do its work. Whether it’s DamnationThe Man from London or The Turin Horse, these scenes are iconic, and they force us, the viewer, to wait, too. Because as Akerman suggested, the viewer is always waiting. We are waiting for the next take to commence, for the current one to stop. Slow films pause, and they develop in their own time. Events are not cut short, which would suit our impatience. Something is always happening in action films, something that relieves us from the claustrophobic feeling of time, the heaviness of time. Time is flying, it’s passing as fast as could be (albeit this is artificial and misleading).

When people who dislike slow films try to reason their feelings towards this type of film, they tend to say that nothing happens on screen, i.e. that it is boring. This “nothing happens” is, in fact, another word for “you actually have to wait for something to happen and we don’t have time for this”. People are impatient. Waiting seems to mean being passive, perhaps being impotent, immobile, all the while being told everywhere that time is running so fast that you’re losing it when you wait a minute or two for the bus. You cannot wait. You need to haste, or else you will lose those precious two minutes. One could perhaps say that people who reject slow films for the simple reason that nothing happens never learned to wait, or forgot the joy of waiting. Because what does waiting mean? What does it do to your body, your mind?

I mentioned several times on this blog that slow films helped me to slow down and deal with PTSD. PTSD introduces an incredible speed into your life, which causes severe anxiety. It’s not just that you’re scared of death. It’s the fact that you can no longer keep up with the speed around you, which makes you unstable and insecure. So what happened was that slow films helped me to pause, and, yes, to wait. Waiting does not mean doing nothing, although it appears as such to a great deal of people. It does not mean being passive, although some people would tell you otherwise. Waiting means being in the moment, being in the present, being present, something that has become increasingly difficult. There is “no time” to be in the present, but this is only the case because we don’t take time for it. To wait means to be mindful. It is a chance to take a look at what surrounds you, at what is going on in your body and mind.

This state is embodied by characters in slow films, when they sit and look out of the window; when they sit in the shadow of trees doing nothing; when they sit in the fields and watch the sky. They’re in the present moment, and the directors ask us to do the same. Be with the characters, be in the moment with them, and become mindful of our surrounding. Become mindful of time, as Akerman suggests, yet without feeling anxious about wasting it. Slow films are a way to see the chances of doing nothing, the liberties of waiting, even the joy in waiting. If only more people took their time to wait and considered the pleasures of nothingness and emptiness… Just how enjoyable is the end of Ben Rivers’ Two Years at Sea? A man sits at a fireplace outdoors, the soundscape gives us a feeling of being there with him. He’s doing nothing. He simply watches how the fire consumes the wood. A beautiful scene, seemingly endless, that allows the viewer to be.

Osmosis – Nasos Karabelas (2016)

!!! This film is available on tao films until the end of March 2017 !!!

And there he stands, a ruin forgotten by everyone – and more so by himself than by any other. He isn’t moving, nor is he sensing anything.  

Nasos Karabelas’s Osmosis (2016) starts in a bleak tone. The deep male voice reminiscing about the self is captivating. Usually, it is images that don’t let you go, images which you must keep looking at. In Osmosis, it is the sound, the voice, which holds you captive. You cannot not listen. Karabelas’s piece is deeply philosophical, underlined with a minimalist mise-en-scène, which, at times, brings forth striking frames.

What is osmosis? It can be a process of absorption, a process of assimilation. What happens to the self in the process of assimilation? It may, by way of assimilation, become nothing. The person begins to feel lonely in a vibrant community because something of him/herself got lost in the process of assimilation. It is this loss that, to me, is very important in Karabelas’s film. I might sound contradictory when I say that the film is characterised by nothingness and emptiness while previously having mentioned the strong presence of a voice-over throughout. But these two don’t have to cancel each other out. On the contrary. The voice-over highlights emptiness, nothingness, the search for something, the burden of loneliness.

He stands on the threshold of nonentity like someone without sense of himself, disenchanted by everything within a world where nothing is lovable. He passes into death already dead, tasting all the abhorrence and the denial of living.

Karabelas said in an interview with tao films that he didn’t want to give answers with this film. He wanted to pose questions, and this he does. Osmosis is a film that despite its slow pace does not allow the viewer to simply sink into his/her chair. If you let the film happen to you and focus on the voice-over, you fill find your thoughts wander. It is not a film which you can simply “accept”. Osmosis needs to be dealt with, enquired, questioned.

The film’s aesthetics help with this. Karabelas uses a simple grey to black-and-white tone. The frames are empty. The unnamed protagonist is often only a dot in a vast landscape. Or a figure of sorrow in nothingness. At times, I even wondered whether he needed to be there, whether this destitute existence would have perhaps been stronger without him, to reinforce the idea of emptiness even more.

All he sees is distaste, and that disgusts him. He feels the anguish. But he’s always there, he can’t but be there. The wait makes him languish.

In a way, Osmosis could be a parable for the modern world experience. It is not a secret that people consider life today as bleak, full of problems, destruction and destitution. Of course, this isn’t a general sensation, but it does exist and it’s not rare. Karabelas explores this feeling very effectively and asks us to follow him through the mind of his protagonist.But who is this protagonist? Is he a man as shown in the film? Or does he stand for a much wider, much larger entity?

A place called Lloyd – Sebastian Cordes (2015)

If there is a film that takes the ideas of absence and nothingness almost literally, then it is surely Sebastian Cordes’ new film A place called Lloyd (2015), a moving portrait of the Bolivian airline Lloyd Aereo Boliviano gone bankrupt. The story in itself is not unusual. Many companies go bust every day throughout the world. What makes Lloyd stand out from the crowd is its particular focus on the (former) employees, who still return to their work as if nothing has happened. Paperwork is being done, material is being cleaned – it all appears to be a routine job. Yet the disastrous bankruptcy and the fact that the employees still haven’t been paid their salary hangs over the film like a ghost. It’s a characteristic present absence which is felt throughout the film’s running time.

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Lloyd, in its aesthetic approach, reminded me of the first Denis Côté film I saw, which was Bestiaire (2012). In a way, we see people at work (though in Bestiaire the focus is obviously more on the beast than on man), but there is a certain sensation of absence, of loneliness, of isolation that characterises both films. It is often said that slow films show “nothing”, which always reminds me of the famous “watch paint drying”. But even that is something! Anyway, the reason why this idea of nothingness fits so well with Cordes’ new film is the narrative he has captured. It is the particular combination of aesthetics – empty or half-empty frames, a minimal soundscape – and a narrative of loss.

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To me, Lloyd fits perfectly into my belief that slow films tend to deal almost exclusively with death. I’m not speaking of literal death. I am more interested in metaphorical death. In this case, it is the company which has seen its death, and therefore a part of people’s lives has gone. Again, the aesthetics are supportive of that. Cordes proves to have a photographic eye. Most shots a superbly composed. He captures the beauty of simplicity and it’s fascinating that he has found this in deserted hangars and offices. But he has also found it in the interaction of those elements with nature. I remember those lovely shots in which the rain comes down on a deserted aircraft…

I want to return to Bestiaire for a second. The visual similarities cannot be denied. I cannot say whether Cordes intended it to be this way. Regardless, the imprint of the Canadian director is very much present and felt. But Cordes creates more than a visual document. He lets the people he observes in their routine speak. He lets them speak to us. The effect is that we are no longer detached from what’s happening miles away to a few employees somewhere in Bolivia. Lloyd becomes a personal portrait of what this company meant and still means to its employees. In each shot, you can feel the pride of the people of having served one of the first airlines that had been set up in the world. Their pride swings in everything we see and hear.

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Lloyd is certainly character-centered, more so than perhaps other slow documentaries. Another one I can come up with is Solitude at the end of the earth by Carlos Casas, although the landscape plays an important role there. This isn’t quite the case with Cordes’ film, even though the actual place where the documentary is set is important in that it creates this atmosphere of absence, of loss, and of metaphorical death. Nevertheless, this is the story of people and Cordes’ Lloyd is a wonderful portrait of those the film depicts. The film shows that Cordes is a talented upcoming slow-film director whom you should follow if you’re particularly interested (like me) in contemporary, very recent slow films.

Stray Dogs – Tsai Ming-liang (2013)

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?