Imbued with mystery, sly humour, and an enormous heart, the latest film from visionary director Tsai Ming-liang (The Wayward Cloud) links together a series of sumptuously composed scenes that tell the story of a broken family living on the margins of Taipei society.
Though born in Malaysia and based in Taiwan, Festival favourite Tsai Ming-liang is, in the deepest sense, an international filmmaker. His films depend little on language or cultural knowledge. They reach us on the level of pure instinct, with elongated, tableau-like scenes, often without words; with ribald physical humour; with emotions too immense to be rushed — real tears take time. Stray Dogs displays all of Tsai’s boldest characteristics.
The film’s unspeakably beautiful first image — which seems to be a flash-forward to long after the story ends — captures a young woman in a verdant room, brushing her hair as two figures sleep behind her. From here we meet the film’s central characters, the vagabonds alluded to in the title. We see two children, brother and sister, traversing an ancient wood, or running along a golden beach. We see their father (Tsai regular Lee Kang-sheng) standing sentinellike in the middle of busy Taipei traffic, holding signs advertising luxury condominiums. The irony is that this family can’t even afford to rent a shoebox apartment.
Like Tsai’s sublime I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, Stray Dogs plucks its characters from society’s margins; without sentimentalizing their subjects, these films exude empathy for day labourers and the homeless. As one mysterious, gorgeously composed scene gives way to the next, we come to know these characters, and something of their history, a time when they indeed had a home, a mother, a very different sort of life. We gaze into their past with them, are invited to share in their loss, and, gradually, imagine some brighter future.