Tsai Ming-liang, joint-winner of the 1994 Golden Lion for Vive L’Amour, returns to Venice with new film Stray Dogs (2013), a motionless motion picture which may challenge even the hardiest arthouse advocates with its tale of a family living on the edge of poverty in Taiwan. Lee Kang-sheng plays a man living on the very boundaries of society, holding billboards up at a busy intersection to make some money. His two children, a boy and a girl (played by the director’s nephew and niece), fend for themselves, eating free samples at supermarkets and killing time until they can retreat to the squat where they spend their nights.
A kindly supermarket worker (played by three actresses: Yang Kuei-mei, Chen Shiang-chyi and Lu Yi-ching) visits the ruined tower block to feed the ‘stray dogs’ the spoiling meat that would otherwise be thrown away by the supermarket. She befriends the little girl and, when the drunken father tries to take the children away on his boat one stormy night, she rescues them and ends up sheltering the family in a derelict building where it appears she herself has been living for some time. Writing a synopsis such as the one above proves deceptive, however; it partakes of a conventional brevity and implies a rationale that’s entirely lacking in the film, as Tsai develops his narrative via a series of agonisingly prolonged shots.
The undeniable beauty of the film’s shot composition is ultimately eroded by its own tectonic pace, pushing the limits of patience and, finally, endurance. Ten-minute long takes of someone eating a chicken, or staring at a wall, or standing in the rain holding a sign, might have a thematic justification – we feel as bored as Kang-sheng’s sign-holder – or they might not, but rationalising Stray Dogs’ ‘dullness’ doesn’t make it any less dull, and soon begins to feel ridiculous. There are moments of naturalism in the children’s performance and a rare flash of humour when they adopt a cabbage, but when the father returns home drunk and attempts to seduce -and then devour – Tsai’s bore tips over into blank absurdity.
The 70th Venice Film Festival takes place from 28 August to 7 September, 2013. For more of our Venice 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.