Slow Wars

Is this how cinema transcends itself?

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, still from Tropical Malady. 2004. Courtesy Kick the Machine Films.

film by Tsai Ming-liang can feel like a test. More specifically, a staring contest. How long can you look? Somewhere into the eleven-minute sequence in Stray Dogs (2013), where the protagonist hugs, kisses, and then devours a cabbage with a human face painted on it, I blinked.

Tsai has been developing his glacially slow aesthetic for nearly a quarter century. Born in Kuching, Malaysia, in 1957, to Chinese parents, he moved to Taipei at the age of 20 to attend university — and, the openly gay director has joked, to escape the reputation as a “gigolo” that he was developing in his hometown. He has worked in Taiwan ever since.

Praising his first films, critics immediately identified Tsai as part of the “Taiwanese New Wave” that took off in the late 1980s. Hou Hsiao-hsien, its elder statesman, had become internationally renowned for contemplative portraits of the provincial life set in the past. Tsai, by contrast, has always focused on the contemporary. His setting is usually Taipei, particularly the corners inhabited by its working class — taxi drivers, supermarket cashiers, sidewalk vendors, janitors, construction workers.

Many of his early films take place in parts of the city that have since been developed out of existence. In his first feature, Rebels of the Neon God (1992), a trio of teenagers roam the arcades and love hotels of Ximending, the then seedy entertainment district. What Time Is It There? (2001) pivots on a chance encounter on a skywalk that was demolished soon after filming. Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) unfolds during the final screening at a historic movie theater. The camera lingers on these spaces with a mesmeric intensity.

The actor Lee Kang-sheng always plays the lead. Lee incarnates a slightly different character in each film, but all are named Hsiao-kang (小康) — a nickname playing on his real-life first name, but also the expression “little wealth” or “well-being.” The phrase signifies modest aspiration; Chinese speakers use it the way Americans used to talk about becoming “middle class.” In the glum surroundings in which Tsai sets Hsiao-kang, his name sounds ironic. An elongated sense of time corresponds to stymied upward mobility; Hsiao-kang never gets anywhere.

Stray Dogs epitomizes the deliberate, dilated style that has become Tsai’s signature. For two hours, the film follows four characters: a shiftless, alcoholic father (played by Lee); two small children, whom he shepherds through Taipei; and a woman (or trio of women) who also cares for them. The woman is played by three Tsai regulars, decades apart in age: Yang Kuei-mei, Lu Yi-ching, and Chen Shiang-chyi. The scenes themselves are not chronologically continuous.

Shot in static long takes using digital cameras, they’re set in a handful of spaces: an abandoned building, roamed by the stray dogs of the title; a shanty that the father has set up for himself and the children to sleep in; a park; a skywalk; a public bathroom where one of the women washes the girl’s long hair in the sink and wrings it out under a roaring hand dryer. Not everywhere in this Taipei appears abject. Luminous crane shots show the sand banks of the Tamsui River, gilded by sunset. The father strides as the children scamper along it. The tangled roots of the tropical trees in the park, which the children scramble over, have the Jurassic magnitude of a dreamscape.

The penultimate shot of Stray Dogs is both beautiful and punishing. For nearly fourteen minutes, the camera remains motionless, watching the faces of Lee and Chen, the youngest of the three lead actresses, from below. They are bathed in blue light. Around minute eleven, a single tear rolls down her cheek. Thirty seconds later, Lee’s character notices, leans forward, and buries his face in her shoulder. They hold that pose until she abruptly switches off the flashlight she had trained on whatever they were staring at and walks off screen.

At last we get the complementary shot: not an eyeline match, from Lee’s perspective, but an overhead view, from behind, of the room he has remained in. We are looking from where a projection booth would be, if this room were a movie theater. It is not. It is the foyer of the abandoned building where we previously saw the stray dogs circling. The floor is littered with trash and rubble, which appears to be chipping off the rain-soaked ceiling.

What have we been watching them watch? On the front wall there is, inexplicably, a mural. It resembles shan shui painting, swift black brushstrokes depicting mountains and rivers. The aspect ratio, however, suggests a screen. The rural landscape is like an establishing shot, a postcard from a film that we don’t get to see. It’s an emblem of the end of cinema: with the image stilled, the theater lies in ruins. The audience assumes its place among the last stray dogs.

Tsai himself has said that he has taken his aesthetic to an extreme that he cannot pursue any further. Presenting Stray Dogs at the Venice Film Festival, he announced that this feature would be his last. The statement could be interpreted as bold, canny, or both: the Grand Jury gave Tsai the top prize, the Golden Lion. Tsai reiterated that he was finished making movies at the US premiere at the New York Film Festival. Did he mean it? an interviewer for Film Comment asked, on the occasion of the Museum of the Moving Image retrospective of his work seven months later. Tsai equivocated. “If someone invites me, I will consider it.” But he said participating in the film market made him feel “powerless.”

“I am the kind of person who is afraid of being restrained,” Tsai mused. “I feel like my film is always about self-exploration.” For now, he does not see how he could take his sensibility further in the cinema. It is easy to see why. With Stray Dogs, Tsai seems to have brought the slowness characteristic of contemporary festival films to its limit: stasis.

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