Tsai Ming Liang’s lastest film, Jiao you (Stray Dogs), winner of the Venice Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize (2013),was made after a long period of silence. One may feel that it is a sort of summary of what is so highly appreciated in all his films, their style and vision, the bold and excessively long takes, the sustained silence, the lean narrative and the sublime beauty – these immediately address the spectator.
Once again we are in Taipei, a blatantly modern big city, where people are solitary, marginal, and dealing with their daily joyless life without much ado. Indeed, the protagonist of this film is almost motionless in his continuous “work”: he is a “sandwich-man”, advertising new luxury apartments through storm and rain and wind. The “Ad” for the new. As we follow his daily activities, we experience the sheer nothingness that surrounds his life. Together with his two kids, he lives the daily routine of existence: eating, pissing, brushing of teeth, cleaning of laundry, dreamlessly sleeping under shining plastic blankets in a (of course) desolate cellar… Once, however, on the seashore, as he arrives at an empty bleak space, as he watches the gray rocks, he suddenly comes to a halt and starts waiting, waiting, waiting for what? We don’t know, as he has no desire and hope for anything.
The film raises the unmovable peaceful wisdom of zen onto an almost embarrassing metaphor: it is not even the rocky coast that faces us but a huge lusterless picture of it – a mural, an immense magnified copy of a barren landscape, framed in its stillness.
In this modern desert of departures and solitude, the truly genuine mirror of existence is neither emotionally or practically more than a mesmerizing image. A recorded piece of something that might have existed at some time, somewhere, for the pleasure of others… Since our protagonist has left behind him a furtive memory of a hot bathtub, of a woman brushing her silky hair, of two children celebrating their father’s birthday, or of a dark unfriendly cavern for quiet stray dogs, all of these places and events can be abandoned as he will move on for a further “straying”, roaming in obscure rubbishy corridors towards the unknown.
The film depicts the spectacular emptiness of the existence of man, its deprivation of time, devoid of past and future. The incomplete family lives peacefully, quietly, wandering between the natural discomfort of a basement’s cold corner, the over-cleaned shiny public bathrooms, or under the endlessly pouring rain. Nothing is gloomily miserable, everything seems well organized and available, just totally absurd, within the well-known decors of modern urban circumstances: aimless and meaningless times, even far beyond customary marginality.
Since in the vision of Tsai Ming Liang all details are precise and fascinating, they are beautiful: the lights in the opaque rain, the colourful transparent slickers of the kids wearing funny hoods; the most modern supermarkets with their glittering windows full of accumulated goods, where the “past-their-sell-by-date” food is no less fine than the fresh, even their wrappings are perfectly convenient and they can be consumed outside on the weedy construction ground in the shadows of the scaffolding.
On top of it all, a round head of cabbage can also become useful. The girl will paint a doll’s face on it and once, after a drunken night, the father’s desire breaks out. First, he wants to smother “her” (the doll), he kills her, then he starts devouring her, tearing her into pieces, violating her “body”, before howling and crying and wailing inconsolably… This is one of the longest infinite actions in the film, elongated in a single eight-minute-long take! All the repressed emotions, anger and suffering fill the scene – as the most painful expression, impossible to withhold and lasting beyond measure.
Even if we meet “normal” circumstances set against all of this harsh physical reality, such as the two rooms where children do their homework, (frail memory images? or mere imagination?) or a bathtub filled with soft water, or a small kitchen where by the light of the open fridge door, we don’t find a more peaceful place. Because the wounds of the hollow walls, the injured partitions, betray the work of time, the traces of the water streams which keep ruining it ceaselessly. The girl dreams in vain about an “excursion” (an exit) where she could enjoy herself among toys but she has to understand that adventure is more probing than anything else. They are all exposed to the cruelty of rain, to the devastating stormy wind, so much so that it seems unimaginable to save their bodies, their soaked dresses and shoes…
Yes, calm can be saturated but because it is made up with thousands of parts that require attention, it is so utterly fragile. And when it changes from the habitual dispositions to grievous conditions, discipline is the acknowledgement of the manifold, the acceptance of unevenness. Because the internal order only knows one simple principle, a fundamental one: following one’s own inherent laws and submitting oneself to the evil and the good, without any revolt.
Here, the notion of “family” implies the cementing and disrupting force, its bonds can be broken at anytime until the next impulse for moving starts again. Then, only the weather-beaten depth of the woods, the storm-worn branches of trees offer some rope to grab. With the help of ropes, the mother manages to steal the children away, leaving the obstinate man alone, in his boat.
Breaking away from the ground is not an effortless job: the opening scene, where the father has to invest troublesome force and skill in order to detach his boat from the ground, could not be more symbolic. But getting on in everyday life is apparently easier, deprivation will not do them any great harm – to get washed and dry their hair, to pee, to sleep in the darkness of the cave – can become natural, readily-acceptable, and will be the automatic order of survival.
There is no scandal in the zencreed. On the contrary, force and patience prevail, which slowly, incredibly slowly, wait for a never achievable redemption.
Tsai Ming Liang’s silent harrowing film dares to nurture the non-events ad almost infinitum, (the ending is more than 13 minutes long) and sweeps us forward with its painful suspense. The hallmark of his movie-writing is justified by the deep faith of Tsai Ming Liang’s zen sensitivity. He alludes to Lao Tse’s words: “Heaven and Earth are heartless, treating creatures like stray dogs”.
However Tsai Ming Liang disagrees when it is said that his movie is desperate: it is cruel, showing the here-and-now in the ghostly way that people can experience it. (1) He claims that, yes, there is heaven and earth and man in the middle and he deserves whole attention to be paid to him. He wants to observe peoples’ states of mind in the slightest details, how the body of his favourite actor Kang-sheng Lee matures, undergoing the finest nuances in his gestures. Therefore there are ethics in slowness: to study human beings in minute detail with respect and apprehension.
This is Tsai Ming Liang’s first fully digital film that offered him another sense of temporality, since there is no limit for the patient observation and, while recording the finest bodily reactions of people, one gets closer to this understanding. The incontestable round structure, shaping the disorder into a captivating order, reveals the profound uniqueness of the oeuvre.
1. Interview with Tsai Ming Liang by Aurore Jestadt, Le Monde, 12th March, 2014