Melbourne International Film Festival Review: Stray Dogs (France & Taiwan, 2013)

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Tsai Ming-Liang’s Stray Dogs is a film that begs a certain amount of prior knowledge before watching. Had I known that Tsai Ming-Liang is renowned for his lack of dialogue and still image composition, I probably would have been a little more adequately prepared for this 145 minute investment. Undeniably beautiful but a rather hard slog, Stray Dogs squanders some of its obviously grand potential through its distinct style but crafts some stunning imagery that’s worth the watch.

The film opens with a single shot of a women brushing her hair while two young children sleep behind her. It lingers just long enough to be hypnotic, and it perfectly sets the tone of this contemplative film. But we never see this woman again, and it’s the beginning of a story that will be maddening to anyone desiring narrative consistency from a trip to the cinema. Following a disenfranchised family – a father, and his son and daughter – through the struggles of their life on the fringes of Taipei – it’s a film crafted almost entirely without words.

Paired with a complete lack of camera movement, Tsai’s film is essentially a collection of still photographs strung together – not altogether a bad thing, but the images crafted by the director are sometimes mesmerising, sometimes unnecessary, and always glacially paced – leaving the film almost deliberately inaccessible, and creates an extreme distance from a collection of characters that you would be sympathising with in any other film. It’s a disconnect I struggled to see past while watching, but there’s an unquestionable, if at times unsettling, beauty to the film’s imagery that makes it impossible to write Stray Dogs off altogether. The film meanders along rather uneventfully for most of the runtime, rising to an utterly bizarre climax in which the father of the family smothers, eats, and weeps over a cabbage he finds in his bed. It’s a scene, and single shot, that lasts eleven whole minutes, and its this kind of strange inconsequence that stops Stray Dogs from creating any genuine empathy or lasting effect.

Artistically, it’s a stunning exercise – and as its apparently the director’s final film, it will surely appeal to ardent admirers of the director’s previous work – but Stray Dogs will prove a hard sell for the uninitiated. A portrait of a family in crisis that fails to generate any demonstrable empathy for its characters, it failed to win me over and will likely do the same for anyone uninitiated to the work of Tsai Ming-Liang.

Review Score: TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Stray Dogs screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival.