Review by Mountain Monkey
SCUM Rating: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Stumbling out of the National Museum after viewing the restored Singhalese classic, Nidhanaya (1972), I was greeted by rain as I made my way to an eagerly-awaited SGIFF (Singapore International Film Festival) screening, Stray Dogs.
Judging by the packed Lido 4, I was not alone in my eagerness at watching Tsai Ming-liang’s latest. As I slumped into the comparatively comfortable seating at Lido, I was greeted by a five minute opening scene where a lady combs her hair and watches two children sleeping. We hear breathing and little else moves. And that’s just for starters.
As the film unfurls over an increasingly agonizing two hours and twenty minutes, the dreary rain from outside seems to seep into the cinema as we’re subjected to longer and longer scenes that make Brian Eno’s Thursday Afternoon (1984) seem like Transformers on steroids.
Stray Dogs revolves around an unnamed man (played by Tsai’s regular lead, Kang-sheng Lee) who’s living rough in Taipei with his two children. The man literally holds down a job as a placard waving human advertisement for various real estate companies, while his children spend their time playing around in a supermarket. For some reason, they have no school and the why is never explained. One day, the girl meets the unnamed woman from the opening scene (veteran Taiwanese actress Yi-Ching Lu), who works at the same supermarket they hang out in. For some inexplicable reason, the actress playing this unnamed woman changes 3/4 through the movie and becomes their mother (played by another Tsai regular, Shiang-chyi Chen).
While confusing, this switch in actresses pales into comparison with the 20 minute finale where the unnamed man stands behind the unnamed woman, slowly drinking miniature bottles of alcohol as she’s moved to tears by a crumbling picture of rocks on a wall. For good measure, as the couple slowly leave the screen, we’re granted an additional five minute shot of the rocks on the wall.
Having viewed Tsai’s Vive L’Amour (1994) and The Hole (1998) back in the 1990s, I thought Tsai’s quirky movies and lengthy shots were something new to world of Asian cinema, and even profoundly moving. With Stray Dog‘s rejection of a coherent narrative and scene after scene of increasing monotony (man eating chicken, man reciting poem with snot running out his nose, man taking a piss, woman taking a piss), we are left with something farcical, and perhaps even insulting to a paying audience, which to their credit stayed till the end.
Stray Dogs could be Tsai’s swansong as he is apparently bored of film, but for myself at least, this will be my farewell to the cinematic world of Tsai Ming Liang. One star for the technical virtuosity of the film, which looked and sounded great.