A meditative, often gruelling slowburner which explores concepts of ‘home’, Tsai Ming-liang’s remarkable Stray Dogs (2013) seeks to investigate the poor’s right to their own city within a phantasmagorical urban landscape. An immensely bittersweet work, Tsai evokes the poetry and tragedy of life lived on the margins of society. A father and his two children have travelled from an undisclosed rural area to find work in Taipei. His children roam the city by day, subsiding on free food samples from the supermarket and in the evenings taking shelter in a makeshift home hidden within an abandoned building. The father manages to make a living as a human billboard advertising luxury homes.
The wind and the rain make it hard for him to stand but he perseveres. A close up of his face reveals a solitary tear roll trickle down his cheek as he recites an ancient Chinese proverb: “In anger my hair stands on end.” This scene of anguish and internal pain against the hustle and bustle of Taipei’s rising skyline solemnly encapsulates the film’s central theme; a powerful mood piece for the forgotten. Tsai captures the world in his usual pensive, long takes, using slowness as a technique to find answers in the haze of modern day confusion. Like the formalist concrete structures that frame his characters’ lives, Tsai relies on fixed camera shots to capture his narrative in a prison of hopelessness. Emotions churn below the surface, occasionally breaking through as the gentlest of whimpers.
Some will find Tsai’s languid, observational methodology boring, impenetrable and perhaps even pretentious, but by challenging his audience to investigate beyond the obvious and allowing them time to consider what’s happening outside the frame, Tsai has crafted a poignant eulogy for the migrant workers and impoverished whose lives are being reconfigured spatially and physically to conform with the construction boom of global cities like Taipei. Tsai has long held a fascination with migrant workers and displaced citizens and Stray Dogs makes some incredibly cogent comments on the re-appropriation of private space and the conditions under which rural-urban communities exist. Unfinished buildings litter the skyline whilst the father spends his days stood in the pouring rain promoting the city’s new developments through the advertising of modern homes.
The juxtaposition of these two worlds beautifully highlights the disparity between human rights and the rights of private property in the city. Towards the end of his film, Tsai transfers the action from the streets of Taipei to the rundown home of the supermarket woman, (now a makeshift mother for the family). As a metaphor for how the notion of a home as a functional living space is old and rotten in a world where property has become a commodity and our right to the city is qualified by our ability to obey market forces. Tsai’s Stray Dogs is a masterpiece of social-realism, a distinctive and beguiling study of society’s displaced and marginalised that plays to the beat of its own drum and refuses to conform to cinema’s own commodification.