A Hole Is Not a Home
Stray Dogs (2013)
After following the lead of his contemporaries and working abroad, director Tsai Ming-liang (no relation) returns to a Taiwan as damp and dilapidated as ever with his latest, “Stray Dogs.” Although the film does feature stray dogs of both literal and figurative varieties, its English title doesn’t even begin to cover this story about a father with two children in tow. In fact, the original Mandarin title, “Jiao you” — which means “field trip” in English — is a much more apt description of the overall experience.
The film has three distinctive structural components: a prologue (a 7-minute fixed opening shot that the uninitiated are making a big deal of), an epilogue and a middle that juxtaposes the literal field trip with the metaphorical one that’s a euphemism for homelessness. The family wanders (the Mandarin word “you”) the outskirts of urbanity (the Mandarin word “jiao”) in both senses: in one, they take a stroll along a beach that is unusually picturesque for a Tsai film; in the other, they are squatting inside an abandoned building. The disparities between the different elements here are so pronounced, the educated guess on how to make sense of it all is to overlook the recurrent family and resist any temptation to read the film as a linear whole by assuming that the conflicting accounts are necessarily dreams or fantasies.
This is perhaps the most political Mr. Tsai has ever gotten, with portraits of three former Taiwanese presidents spotted in the rubble. Mr. Tsai’s alter ego Lee Kang-sheng plays Kang, in parts a homeless day laborer standing at an expressway exit while holding up a sign that advertises luxury condominiums. At one point another sign-holding day laborer quits — with his resignation written in chalk on the sidewalk — so Kang picks up the man’s abandoned sign, finds the pristine and posh sample home it promotes and breaks into it for a much needed getaway from his prolonged field trip, so to speak. The seemingly postmodern apartment — complete with Mr. Tsai’s signature decay — from the prologue and epilogue supplies the comparison and contrast: Amid the architectural deterioration and claustrophobic oppression, Kang’s two kids long for an actual field trip. In either scenario, nobody wins.