Words: Brody Rossiter
A deeply unsettling atmosphere radiates from the visuals of Tsai Ming Ling’s critically lauded 2013 Taiwanese-French drama, Stray Dogs. It is as though a set of gnarled fingers are slowly reaching out from the screen, inching ever closer and forming a deathly grasp around your neck.
The picture’s opening scene depicts a mother sitting at the edge of her children’s bed while delicately combing her hair. The muffled sounds of the young boy and girl’s heavy breaths loop over one another. The room’s makeup is indistinguishable beyond its diminutive dimensions, darkness and evident state of dilapidation. Several minutes pass, to be specific, seven long, hard minutes pass, and very little changes. However, the level of viewer discomfort grows roots, stretching deeper and deeper. This could be the opening of an insidious Asian horror, but suddenly daylight arrives – relocating the children to an ancient forest and offering the viewer a welcome reprieve from the gloom. Nevertheless, the scene’s underlying sense of menace and bizarreness set a potent tone that is exhibited throughout, and while the conventions of nightmarish horror dissipate, the fearful nature of a gruelling everyday grind quickly surfaces.
Little appears in term of convention throughout, and Stray Dogs is perhaps one of the least accessible yet most visually gripping pieces of cinema in recent memory. It depicts the daily lives of the aforementioned children and their alcoholic father. Their mother has somehow disappeared and while they are left to their own devices scouring brightly lit supermarket interiors by day, the father hoists a billboard for hours on end at the edge of a perpetually rainswept and chaotic city centre intersection.
The often wordless yet nevertheless eloquent nature of Tsai Ming Ling’s experimental style of filmmaking – the director continues his trend of forming several extended takes into a feature – leaves much open to interpretation. This is not to say that he does not present a series of powerful themes through imagery (themes familiar to Asian cinema, such as societal dislocation and the breakdown of tradition) but rather that the emotional responses that these passages may draw from viewers will likely prove extremely varied.
There is a heaviness to the picture’s character studies that is matched only by the director’s dedication to his aesthetic. The suffocating set–pieces rip and tear at the senses while the camera remains static, and while there is a strangely hypnotic aura at play, that mood is established through mostly stark and uncompromising visuals that are not welcome sights. Whether trudging through muddy wastelands in the shadow of a concrete jungle or depicting a broken man smothering and devouring a raw cabbage for ten minutes, the film is thoroughly obtuse and consistently remarkable. While undeniably vast artistic achievement, Stray Dogs will undoubtedly act to alienate more than it captivates. Suffice to say, it’s not for everyone.