At least one critic has called the retirement of Taipei-based film director Tsai Ming Liang, a lauded master of “slow” cinema, “one of the most powerful retirements” in the medium’s history. “If Stray Dogs really is the last movie of Tsai Ming-Liang, then it would be one of the harshest losses of modern cinema, but at the same time one of the most powerful retirements in the history of the medium,” writes TwitchFilm.com. Liang just may surprise with a comeback, but has said he is finished due to feeling tired “inside.”
This kind of praise is not foreign to Tsai. Having dealt a blow of this magnitude to world cinema by retiring, it seems appropriate to look at his final offering, as well as his legacy and relevancy.
The Malaysian-born Chinese auteur was ranked no. 18 on The Guardian’s list of the top 40 living directors. His (supposedly) final film Stray Dogs (Jiao You) won the Grand Jury Prize at the recently held 70th Venice Film festival. His other trophies include the 1994 Golden Lion (best picture) for Vive L’Amour in Venice, the Silver Bear – Special Jury Prize for The River at the Berlin International Film Festival, the FIPRESCI award for The Hole at Cannes, and the Alfred Bauer Prize and Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Achievement for The Wayward Cloud in Berlin.
A very different reaction to Tsai’s work – which could be considered an honor depending on whose side you’re on – also came from the Malaysian government, which banned his 2006 film I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone for its allegedly negative portrayal of the country. The film unsentimentally deals with issues of race, telling the story of a homeless man, played by Lee Kang-sheng, who is beaten by a mob and rescued by a Bangladeshi migrant laborer, played by Norman Atun. After agreeing to censor select bits – 18 in total – of the contentious romance tale, Tsai was later permitted to screen the work in his home country.
Likewise, in his latest (and likely final) flick Stray Dogs Tsai doesn’t shy away from observing life on the margins – and doing so in his unique style. The keys to Tsai’s style are preoccupation with feelings over plot. TwitchFilm.com goes on to note that even among the cinephiles in Venice many were simply unable to bear the long waits of some shots in the film, which explores the plight of a family which has become homeless and is left to drift at the edge of society. And while the movie addresses the themes of isolation and the universal struggle that comes with fighting with an impoverished existence, the real focus is on the emotions that wash over the subjects thrust into this quandary.
“This is not a film about hope or despair. It's about a man who gives up, who lets himself go completely,” Tsai told AFP. “Everywhere we look, unemployment is increasing, homelessness is rising. Life is becoming more difficult for many, and it is those difficulties I wanted to explore.”
Indeed, the themes of vagrancy, losing one’s job, and the loss of face that comes with it have featured heavily in a number of prominent Asian films, from Japan to Singapore, in recent years. Prime examples include Ilo Ilo and Tokyo Sonata. Ilo Ilo explores the domestic unraveling of a Singaporean family whose father is laid off and Tokyo Sonata does the same in a Japanese setting.
Stray Dogs features a father (again played by repeat collaborator Lee) who scrapes by acting as a human billboard for luxury apartments in Taipei, and whose son and daughter survive on free samples from a supermarket. The three reconvene at the end of each day to eat, wash in a public bathroom and sleep in an abandoned house. The wear and tear of this subsistence tells it all. Not much dialog is necessary. Simple scenes that lighten the mood include one in which the boy dresses as a prized cabbage to entertain his sister. In this way, Liang explores basic human needs in their most stripped down essence.
In one of the film’s most crucial scenes, Lee is seen slowly eating a cabbage. The lead actor recalled, “The screenplay just said ‘Lee eats the cabbage’. I didn't know how to play it, I kept wondering how I was going to eat the cabbage – in the end I ate it raw – and whether the cabbage was supposed to represent my life.”
In this sense, the medium is Liang’s message. Slowing down is the anecdote he prescribes.
“In the world I have created, everything stems from an understanding of things as time passes,” Liang told journalists. “I have to let things rest and be digested. I feel at a loss when I am faced with the speed modern life imposes on us. I feel being slow is a technique to find one's way in the confusion.”
He added: “There are directors who try to make films which will change the world, but who are we hoping to influence in a world where speed prevails?”