Thursday, April 23, 2015

Stray Dogs

(Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan/France, 2013)

My first Tsai.  Somehow, I never got around to catching his films, a few of which were somewhat available online and on video, although right now they seem pretty scarce.  I don't know exactly why my interest was so slight: I heard terrific things from people I trust, and at one point I was very hot on the kind of cinema that Tsai would seem to exemplify.  After discovering Hou Hsio-hsien, it was as if a new world of cinema had opened up, and I eagerly consumed what I could find of his movies.  But I stopped short of Tsai.  Sometimes, I find that I have a feeling about a filmmaker, some kind of gut-level twinge that draws me in or keeps me out.  For whatever reason, I wasn't drawn to Tsai. 

One film in, I don't quite know what to make of his cinema.  He's very much his own creature; where Hou is stately, elegant, and steeped in a kind of memory-suffused realism, Tsai is decidedly off-kilter, with an obvious penchant for oddity and a seething sense of rage and sorrow.  His images are crisp but skewed, lacking the proscenium-like portals of Hou.  (I can't seem to avoid using Hou as a kind of touchstone, but the comparisons are valid enough, I think.)

There is something stubbornly abstract about Stray Dogs.  Despite his evocative treatment of people on the margins, the images, and their juxtaposition, seem to create a greater sense of distance between the audience and the film.  The whole thing feels at once to be hyper-controlled and casually loose, as if the shots were all culled, quickly and intuitively, from a great database of material.  I'm used to being drawn into so-called "slow" cinema, but I found myself feeling as alienated as the characters appeared to be.  That may be the point - there is definitely an emphasis on surfaces that makes for some brilliantly sharp moments.  But overall, I found myself seeking an inner complexity that the film may not contain.  At the very least, I'm eager to see other films of his, and frustrated that they don't seem to be available.

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