I’ve been meaning to write something about Tsia Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs for some time but am only just getting around to it. Like many others I was quite affected by the film when I saw it and found myself trying to unravel its mysteries for days after seeing it. I was fairly pleased with my theory of what was going on in this inscrutable film until I read Neil Young’s recent posting on it. It wasn’t so much Neil’s take that swayed me but his inclusion of a Tsai quote from the official press book, stating that the prominent female character isn’t the mother of the film’s two child characters, even though she essentially takes on the role of mother to the family unit headed by our placard-carrying central protagonist, Lee (played by Tsai’s regular collaborator Lee Kang-Shang).
As Neil Young states, I’m not alone in perceiving the woman to be the mother. The venerable David Bordwell himself also makes this observation. But the trouble for me is that it destroys my reading of the film entirely. What I loved about the film was its fractured sense of time and place; its jumbled chronology and disorienting obscurity. The first half of the film seems fairly chronological, but then the film seemed (to me) to unravel and dart back and forth in time just as Lee’s tenuous grip on sanity starts to disintegrate.
For me this was one of the film’s key distinctions; this wasn’t just another contemplative art film about nothing much in particular – Stray Dogs is just as compelling as Memento, Mulholland Dr. or Primer as a cinematic puzzle that longs to be decoded.
My reading of the film springs from the prominence of mural that figures in two of the film’s three exceedingly long, one-take scenes. My theory was that Tsai was using the mural as a decoding device, a tip to help us unlock the story in the same way that David Lynch used this jarring jump-cut, and a coffee mug that turns into a glass of whisky, in Mulholland Dr. to signify the juncture at which fantasy bleeds into reality:
The significance of the mural scenes is emphasised by their position in the film’s structure. The first come at roughly the midway point, as the woman visits the abandoned building and stares at the mural for several minutes before defecating on the floor. The second is the film’s devastating final shot in which Lee and the woman embrace and stare longingly and intently at the mural as they both seem to undergo a quiet breakdown.
My reading of the film goes like this. The woman is the mother of the family, and it’s a troubled family unit. Struggling financially and with other personal and relationship issues, their lowly existence is compounded by the dire surroundings of their water-damaged and unsafe apartment. Once their situation gets so bad they’re forced to move into an even more dilapidated abandoned building, it gets too much for the woman who decides to move out and try and rebuild her life away from the family unit. It’s a momentous and regrettable decision to leave her kids, but one she doesn’t take lightly. It’s at this point in the story that the final mural scene occurs – she’s just discussed leaving and the weight of her decision is slowly occurring to both of them. She manages to get a job in a supermarket and begins to reconstitute her self-esteem. But Lee deteriorates rapidly on his own and can barely look after the children, culminating in the notorious cabbage scene, which I read as a metaphorical echoing and prefiguring of an upcoming act of infanticide.
With nothing left, Lee wanders around spends a final night of freedom in the plush apartment, knowing that it’s all over and the police will come for him at some stage. The sequences showing the mother returning to the abandoned building come sometime later. She knows what happened there and returns to the building occasionally, it being the last place she saw her children alive. The pack of feral animals have become a sorry substitute for her own little stray dogs. The final sequence of the story takes place as she looks at the mural again; contemplating her disastrous decision to desert her family. And the shit on the floor is an evacuative statement of disgust towards the misery of humanity and the unseen economic forces that led to her family’s destruction.
Now I know that many viewers who’ve seen the film more than once will probably say that there are elements in the film that clearly refute my reading, and that I’m just plain wrong. All I can say is that this is this chronology that came to me in the hours after my first viewing. I couldn’t go back and re-check details. It’s obvious now that my interpretation is incorrect. But there’s something neat and tidy about my timeline, you must admit. Everything after the cabbage scene (the other pivotal, long unbroken take, after the two mural scenes) is Lee’s memory of how their life unraveled up to this point – a flashback at the very point of his tipping into murderous oblivion.
Having now realized that the woman is a kindly benefactor, an outsider who becomes a substitute mother, I’m going to experience the film differently second time around. But hopefully it won’t detract from the film’s power.
I still believe, as does Mr Young, that Stray Dogs is a film that will still be talked about long after most of the so-called slow cinema masterpieces of the day have been forgotten about, and pretenders and charlatans such as Lav Diaz and Carlos Reygadas have been demoted to the dustbin of cultural history. Tsai of course in some ways defined the components and set the standards for the strain of long-take art cinema that’s now predominant, back in the 1990s. Stray Dogs will allegedly be his cinematic swansong, and as such it comes across as a bold final statement in which he exhibits all the stylistic traits that came to define his classic works, but with an added emotional forcefulness and formal complexity usually lacking in contemporary contemplative cinema.
Tsai also seems to be reasserting the dominance of his Taiwanese school of Asian auteurs over the claims of the younger generation of mainland Chinese directors that emerged afterwards, and Tsai marries his usual concerns about the alienating effects of urban spaces with a sociopolitical edge that recalls Jia Zhangke, managing also to convey such themes more effectively than the younger man’s over-celebrated works.
It’s also certainly a more necessary final work than Bela Tarr managed with his self-parodying The Turin Horse, although one could argue that, similarly, Tsai could take this kind of cinema no further in any case. I can only hope it inspires more rigour and ambition in the legion of ambling auteurs who’ve followed in Tsai’s wake. And as for my erroneous interpretation, I may struggle to shake it off now it’s become embedded in my perception of the film, but I know when I’m beaten.