It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"Stray Dogs," Tsai Ming-Liang's first feature in five years, is a mysterious and deliberately prolonged series of tableaus about the fragility of flesh and the smallness of humanity, among other things.
Like most of his films—but particularly ones built around very long takes, such as 2003's masterful "Goodbye, Dragon Inn"; his 35-minute short "Madame Butterfly," which has just three shots; and this one—it refuses to engage with anything resembling conventional, commercially viable storytelling. This is a director whose 1997 film "The River" kicked off with a locked-down shot of an escalator on which the main action was a wordless exchange of glances between a man and a woman who didn't enter the frame for half a minute. Compared to Tsai, the hypnotically austere Apichatpong Weerasethakul ("Syndromes and a Century," "Tropical Malady") seems fidgety.
Before he decided to focus on cinema, Tsai worked in experimental theater, and if you've decided to sample his work for the first time starting with this new feature, you should bear that in mind as you watch. There is no plot to speak of here, nor are there any characters—not in any conventional sense of the terms. We're not watching people pursue specific goals, solve specific problems, and learn and grow on the way to catharsis. We're just watching people exist and intuiting the story that drives them from situation to situation, and then moving on to connect the people and the landscape with basic, deep concerns: the isolation and disconnection of life in anonymous big cities; the sense of being suspended in a perpetual present even as time rolls on; the tactility of forests and roads, rooms and furniture, clothes and books, bedsheets and skin. Cinema often lures us into thinking about what people and places and situations represent rather than appreciating their essence. Tsai's films push against that tendency. They might owe more to documentaries, or to theatrical installations, than to most traditional scripted features. The last ten minutes of this movie consist of an unbroken long take of characters staring at a mural.
The movie begins with a long shot of a mother sitting on the edge of a bed, brushing her hair as she watches her two children (Lee Yi Cheng and his sister Li Yi Chieh) sleep. This woman, presumably the children's mother, vanishes from the story, and the siblings are next seen living with their dad (Lee Kang-Sheng) inside a shipping container and making pocket money holding up advertising signage at a busy urban intersection. The film continues like that, observing the harshness of the children's lives, and their father's exhaustion and seemingly constant depression (he seems to spend a lot of the money they make as a family on alcohol and smokes). “Heaven and Earth are heartless, treating creatures like straw dogs," says the Tao Te Ching.