Of Cabbages and Kings: Tsai Ming-liang’s ‘Stray Dogs’

John Thomson photograph. http://www.wretch.cc/blog/singjen/5416773

Experimental and narrative cinema can often make for very strange bedfellows – snuggling up together about as cosily as, say, a man and a cabbage – with results that often prove messy, even catastrophic. But under certain special circumstances the shared dreamings yield a transcendent, alternative reality into which we all may segue. A supreme example is Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs (Jiao you), a 21st century digital masterpiece capable of comparison with anything the medium has produced in its first, analogue hundred years. This audaciously enigmatic vision of urban poverty, an instant classic of sympathy-extending humanism, astounds on several levels. Tsai not only pulls off that nightmarishly tough experimental/narrative combination with aplomb, he’s also able to move from grittily unflinching realism to a much more poetically ambiguous register with the sauntering assurance of a free-ranging urban canine navigating lanes of hazardously speeding traffic.

Tsai has described this, his 10th theatrical feature, as his last. And it’s easy to discern a certain valedictory bravado at play here – or perhaps, a demob-happy confidence that comes from realising that at this stage, four years after 2009’s tepidly-received Face, the Malaysia-born Taiwanese writer-director has far more to gain than to lose. Ironic, then, that the work which has so quickly restored the 56-year-old to the uppermost branches of the international auteur tree (which he occupied for over a decade from 1994, when Vive l’Amour shared the Golden Lion at Venice) should itself so acutely address how individuals – and even nations – cope with humiliating status-loss.

you've been framed: Chiang Kai-Shek beams down

In a long film (136 minutes*) with only a very small handful of personages who may be charitably termed ‘characters’, the laconically care-worn beleaguered protagonist is Lee (Tsai’s perennial leading-man Lee Kang-Sheng), who earns a meagre daily wage as a human billboard. Clad in a thin plastic poncho-cum-cagoule, Lee holds up advertising placards for hours on end in windblown, rainswept corners of a faceless, unnamed metropolis (presumably intended to be taken as the national capital Taipei, although end credits identify Taiwan’s third city Taichung as the main filming-location.)

Early sequences emphasise the repetitive drudgery of such work, culminating in the first of what will be four challengingly protracted and uncompromising scenes in Stray Dogs. For five seconds short of six minutes, Tsai holds an intensely intimate close-up on Lee as he first speaks then tearfully sings Yue Fei’s patriotic 12th century poem Man Jiang Hong [滿江紅, i.e. “all are red in the river”], a poem whose author “has evolved into a standard epitome of loyalty in Chinese culture.”

My wrath bristles through my helmet, the rain stops as I stand by the rail;
I look up towards the sky and let loose a passionate roar.
At the age of thirty, my deeds are nothing but dust, my journey has taken me over eight thousand
So do not sit by idly, for young men will grow old in regret.
The Humiliation of Jingkang still lingers
When will the pain of the Emperor’s subjects ever end?
Let us ride our chariots through the Helan Pass,
There we shall feast on barbarian flesh and drink the blood of the Xiongnu.
Let us begin anew to recover our old empire, before paying tribute to the Emperor.

flyover country: Lee Kang-Sheng belts his heart out

The contrast between Yue’s high-flown martial sentiments and Lee’s pathetic plight is savagely extreme, and this isn’t just a tale of one dad’s woes. Five years into the global financial ‘crisis’, the gap in Taiwan between the super-wealthy and everyone else has become a grotesque chasm. Fancy cars abound, construction work is going on in this skyscraper-dotted city, and Lee’s placards, promoting real-estate companies with mockingly pretentious names like ‘Far Glory’, advertise costly high-end apartment projects. But Lee, paid cash-in-hand at the end of each day, can’t afford a proper roof over his own head. Instead he sleeps with his young children Yi-Cheng (boy) and Yi-Chieh (girl) in a shack that provides reasonable shelter but lacks all other basic domestic amenities.

The family use public toilets to wash, they eat takeaway meals al fresco. The children, while apparently happy and well-adjusted, don’t seem to go to school, instead spending their days wandering supermarket aisles (with occasional sojourns into the nearby countryside.) Yi-chieh gets to know a middle-aged manager at a Carrefour store (the French-owned Carrefour Taichung appears in the end credits, during a long list of corporate ‘sponsors’) – an unnamed character played by another Tsai regular Lu Yi-Ching (b.1955). Her quasi-maternal, charitable nature is indicated by her regular visits to an abandoned building, seemingly not far from the Lees’ shack, where she feeds out-of-date but perfectly edible supermarket produce to a pack of placid stray dogs (she beckons one with the name ‘President’, another as ‘Star’ – grand monikers for mangy mutts.)

al fresco dining, en famille

There’s an obvious parallel to be drawn between the two groups who benefit from this solitary lady’s munificence. Indeed, Lee’s little clan gives little outward appearance of poverty-stricken homelessness (even if his daughter’s smelly hair soon catches the nose of Supermarket Lady) thus conforming to the key conclusion drawn by Alan Beck in his 1973 seminal study The Ecology of Stray Dogs, republished in 2002: “One adaptation of unowned (stray) dogs in an urban environment is to behave like socialized pet dogs. In that way, they are indistinguishable from owned straying dogs and are tolerated as loose pets and not wild dogs–a form of “cultural camouflage.” [Preface, ix]

But rather than belabour the dogs/family parallels, Tsai instead elects, well after half-way in his narrative, to head in a different, unexpected direction – one which makes any synopsis of Stray Dogs difficult and arguably even pointless. In the grip of an alcohol-fuelled psychological crisis one horribly rainy night, Lee attempts to take his children into a small rowing-boat – purpose and destination unknown. He’s stymied by the sudden appearance of Supermarket Lady, who rescues the traumatised moppets in a sequence notable for its energetic editing and quick cuts (all the more jarring in a picture which otherwise adopts a stately, glacial attitude towards shot-duration and can be taken as the very last word in Slow Cinema). The image abruptly cuts to black – and now the children and their father are staying with the lady in her phantasmagorically water-damaged apartment, an ad hoc domestic arrangement which has an air of permanence.

The Birthday Party. Where's Nick Cave?

The helpful lady is now played by a different, visibly younger actress: Chen Shiang-chyi (b.1969) is actually the third performer in this particular role, as Yang Kuei-mei (b. 1959) had appeared in the four-minute prologue, combing her hair in gloomy silence while sitting on the (sleeping) children’s bed. This quirk of casting, as Nick Pinkerton has noted in his excellent analysis of Stray Dogs, connects Tsai’s (reported) farewell** with Luis Buñuel’s valedictory picture, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). But here the effect is much more disorienting and even baffling than in Buñuel’s film. No surprise that individual interpretations of Stray Dogs should differ so widely, with several critics baldly asserting that the Supermarket Lady is actually Lee’s estranged wife. (David Bordwell: “A father, mother, and two children try to survive on the streets. The father picks up odd jobs, while the mother finds work in a supermarket. They wash in public restrooms and scrounge castoff food, sometimes thanks to the mother’s rescuing market goods past their sell-by date. At night, the father and the kids huddle in a makeshift hut, until the mother finds a somewhat better squat in a ruined office building.”)

The structure of Tsai’s screenplay, co-written with Tung Cheng Yu and Peng Fei, and the elliptical nature of Lei Chen-Ching’s editing (this is the first Tsai feature Lei has worked on since 1997’s The River) further foster such subjective assessments, with much so basic information withheld and both geographical and temporal dislocations the norm. Lee is an alcoholic, a condition exacerbated by evidently extreme mental duress as he copes with bringing up two children on the slenderest of means, with feelings of shame and guilt seldom far from his meek surface. Tsai’s approach implicitly posits that such folk may not always experience reality according to the directly unvarnished traditions of cinema vérité – and Stray Dogs‘ utterly matter-of-fact weirdness is a disarming way of putting the viewer both in Lee’s shoes and inside his head (an illuminating place to visit, if not a desirable one in which to permanently reside.)

steamy windows

Several sequences, while presented ‘straight’, have a teasingly oneiric quality – around half-way, Lee happens upon a luxuriously-appointed but apparently untenanted apartment-building and steals inside through a Lynchian maroon-wallpapered portal of some kind. Ascending via an elaborately twisting white staircase, he finds rare repose in an eyrie-like, modernistic, antiseptic penthouse – a fairytale-castle bedroom by way of Stanley Kubrick. This ‘strange interlude’ immediately presages his decline into drink-fuelled, self-pitying crisis – the actual breaking-point coming during a walk with his children through city streets during a torrential downpour. “Look after your sister,” he informs his son, absconding to down spirits in a cavernous abandoned factory before returning home in a state of funked-out stupor.

It’s here that Tsai delivers on one of the film’s four notably extended single-shot sequences, as Lee climbs into bed only to discover a cabbage between the sheets – a kind of pet-cum-toy for the children, who have named ‘it’ “Miss Big Boobs” and who perhaps view the vegetable as a substitute for their absent mother (or, as it’s a Miss rather than a Mrs, an imaginary older sister.) Lee ‘suffocates’ the cabbage, upon whose pale green surface a rudimentary face has been drawn, before embracing, kissing and then consuming the brassica in a scene that runs for 10 minutes and 43 seconds. It’s much too much for some viewers – as Michael Pattison commented, “every film gets the audience it deserves. Only the year’s best causes walkouts both 5 and 130 minutes in.”

The film’s penultimate shot, in which Lee and the Supermarket Lady (young version) contemplate a mural in the abandoned building where the stray dogs, actually runs more than three minutes longer. But while this achingly slow coming-together of two lost souls is of crucial importance in terms of the characters’ emotional arc, and also testament of the power of art to console and soothe, it’s essentially only a prelude.

A slow-burning steady-builder of a picture, Stray Dogs now culminates in the most quietly spectacular fashion imaginable: a seven-minute coup de cinema showing both Lee – now solo – contemplating the mural, and also (shown to us for the second time in the film) the mural itself. Kao Jun-Honn’s monochrome rural landscape in Cinemascope format is illuminated by a fixed, starkly lunar, blue-white external light-source, courtesy of cinematographers Liao Pen-Jung and Sung Wen-Zhong. This essay is dedicated to them.

Stray Dogs poster, based on the final shot

Neil Young
19th November, 2013


the running-time is given in the press book as 138 minutes, but the version screened at Venice Film Festival in September 2013 was timed by this author at 136 minutes.

Initially there was only one female character in the script, a character who enters Hsiao Kang’s family and takes the children away from him I had originally intended for Lu Yi Ching to play the role, but I fell very sick later on, sick enough that might die at any moment. Fearing that Stray Dogs could be my last time, and that I may never have the chance to work with Yang Kuei Mei and Chen Siang Chyi again, a wild idea suddenly hit me. Why not let all three women play the same character? However by the end of shooting, it didn’t seem to matter any more if they were playing the same character or not. I will be happy if this film should end up being my final curtain call, because I have enjoyed having my actors by my side. In fact, they have always stayed by my side, no matter how small their role may be, and I am grateful for that.
Tsai Ming-liang
Stray Dogs press book, Summer 2013

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more on the mural…

KAO Jun-Honn at work

I began a historical survey, which took me along the Frontier Guard Line from the mountainous areas in Xindian to Taoyuan, which was once powered by electric circuits, and I also explored the remaining site of the once popular “Forest Amusement Park” in the 80s; the decaying ruins of the coal industry that ended in the 90s because of terms with the World Trade Organization (WTO); and the countless industrial roads that have been abandoned in the mountains. I crossed over forgotten graveyards and neglected betel nut groves, and studied the history of these mountainous regions. During the process of the research, I came across some photos of the Liugui Village in Kaohsiung City taken by John Thomson in 1871. The photos had me mesmerized.

Thomson was amongst one of the first photographers to travel to Taiwan, and I find it difficult not to feel a sense of “hunting” projected from his photographs. The images have a natural and anthropological “objective” to them. The establishment for this approach to viewing is undoubtedly to embed in the images certain social struggles that we are unaware of. Furthermore, the images could be considered as presented through a “modern capitalistic” approach. Seeing these images as a form of “modern capitalism”, the thought motivated me to alter them. First of all, I began by enlarging the photographs, and secondly, I followed by relocating the exhibition space to an abandoned area. Moreover, the images are depicted with charcoal. This process alters the very essence of these images. First of all, by enlarging the photographs, they would take on more “image-like” qualities, and secondly, by placing the exhibition space in an abandoned area, the images would garner the potential to become backdrops and would thus take on more empty film set or theater-like qualities.

Kao Jun-Honn
Asian Art Biennal, 2013

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Tsai at work

Stray Dogs is about a single-parent family without a mother. This family doesn’t even have a home in fact. Father, son and daughter move from one abandoned building to another. All the abandoned ruins seem in my film to have been waiting for me for ages. I see each of them as as characters in my film. I found them, and I listened to the stories that they told me. While scouting for locations, I discovered a large landscape painting on a wall of one of these buildings, which was quite a surprse. It was a very moving sight. Perhaps this painting was the facial expression of this lonely city. Or perhaps it was a mirror, reflecting both the illusion and the reality of our human world. I had no idea who the artist was, but I knew I had to film it. I asked my crew to protect it, but they had no way of guaranteeing that protection, because anyone could enter the abandoned building freely. Therefore I could only pray for its safety. It was only during post-production that I found out that the artist was called Kao Jun Honn. He had begun painting inside many abandoned buildings in recent years. Interestingly, he told me that he had no interest in exhibiting these paintings. He only wished that people would encounter them by chance. Even more interestingly, this particularly painting was based on an old photograph that was taken in 1871 by an Englishman [sic] named John Thomson. It showed the primitive landscape of southern Taiwan from over a century ago. In the original photograph there were two Taiwanese aboriginal children standing in the left corner, but Kao had chosen to exclude them in his painting. Coincidentally there are two children roaming around the abandoned building in my film.

Tsai Ming-liang

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The Taipei Fine Arts Museum is holding a special exhibition of 247 precious pictures taken by 114 famed photographers dating from from 1871 to 2011. The exhibition, titled “Eye of the Times: Centennial Images of Taiwan,” spans 140 years… It opens with a photo of Fort Zeelandia, Formosa in 1871 – now known as Anping Fortress, Tainan, Taiwan taken by Scottish travel photographer John Thomson on his first visit to Taiwan in 1871. It is believed to be the earliest well-kept image in the history of Taiwanese photography.

After visiting southern Fujian in China, Thomson went to Taiwan by ship with James Laidlaw Maxwell, the first Presbyterian missionary to the island in 1865.  They arrived in Dagou (now Kaohsiung) in early April 1871 and from Liouguei in Kaohsiung, headed north to Muzha in Taipei. Thomson took many photos of landscapes, rivers, valleys, harbors and indigenous tribes, especially the Pingpu, on the west of the island.

Michael Wong
“John Thomson and Early British Photograph in Taiwan.” British Photographic History, May 2011

John Thomson (1837-1921)

In the dry beds of one or two streams I observed quantities of slate and shale, and indications of the presence of coal, which is now forming an important article of commerce in the north of the island, and which in process of time will enable Formosa, as a great coal field, to contribute materially to the development and progress of the East.

John Thomson
“Notes of a journey in southern Formosa.”
Journal of the Royal Geographical Society XLIII, 1873