In reviews of What Time Is It There, critics praise the cinematography of Benoit Delhomme. And sure, it looked good on DVD, but watching Stray Dogs in HD made a massive difference. When your movie involves people standing in the middle distance in a room, it helps to be able to see the person, and the room.
A movie about people with shitty jobs trying to hold their lives together, I suppose. Lee has two kids, stands on corners in the miserable wind and rain holding up an advertisement. And there’s a woman who works at a grocery store, seems efficient at her job, then goes home to a derelict building where her hobbies are feeding wild dogs and staring at a wall mural.
I assumed the woman was played by Chen Shiang-chyi from What Time Is It There, but I recognized Yi-Ching Lu in a promo still from the film, and that’s the same character in the movie, so I was confused until I read this from Tony Rayns: “Complicating matters just a little, she is played by all three of Tsai’s favorite actors: Yang Kuei-mei in the prologue, Lu Yi-ching in the supermarket, and Chen Shiang-chyi in the closing scenes.”
Nick Pinkerton on the woman:
Every time a new actress replaces the last, the character is introduced in such a fashion that it’s impossible to gauge their familiarity or lack thereof with Lee’s character or the children. There is sufficient evidence to suggest either that they are all facets of the same woman, or that they are three different women altogether; there’s not enough evidence to prove either conclusion. Tsai’s own explanation is that, having suffered recent ill health, he feared that this would be his last chance to work with the actresses.
If there’s anything Walker has taught me it’s to appreciate very small movements and variations in apparent stillness – plenty of opportunity for that here. This is a movie that ends with a twenty-minute scene (in two shots) of two people staring at a wall. Before that, the woman seems to kidnap Lee’s children, then they all end up at her house together, where he quietly breaks into her collection of tiny liquor bottles.
Lee vs. cabbage:
Tsai’s apparent obsession with water (and peeing) continues here. Watching so much of his work in a row made me yearn for noodles, but I didn’t explain myself sufficiently so Katy made lasagna.
Pinkerton again, from his fantastic review in Reverse Shot:
The battering rains which never seem to cease in Tsai’s Taipei have, like time, the power to erode, wear down — and with time, as Lee has grown from lost boy to thickset, ruddy middle-aged man, Tsai’s cinema has itself eroded. The trajectory of Tsai’s filmography has been an ongoing act of paring away. It seems difficult to believe today, but Rebels of the Neon Gods actually had energetic tracking shots. It had theme music! Catchy theme music! … In Tsai’s fallen world, his tired, poor, wretched refuse can ask for nothing more than refuge, silence and space enough to dream in and something better to dream of, a shrine to honor with their tears. In Stray Dogs, that shrine is the shore of a virginal Taiwan. For the rest of us who persist in a habit of staring at pictures on walls, Stray Dogs itself will do nicely.
When I was a little boy, I used to go to a market next to a clock tower with my grandmother. In my memory, that clock tower looked gigantic. A while later, when the market disappeared, the tower looked more diminutive than ever. Each time I walked past that tower I felt sorrow. Sometimes reality is so depressing one can barely face it. Those disappeared theaters from the memories of my childhood, when I began traveling the world, I realized they can be found everywhere, in equal states of dilapidation, many of which become cruising spots. I liked to go on my own adventures in these places. It’s so hard to describe the feeling I get in these spaces, like a dream covered in mold. Typical trajectories are not part of my world, or my films, and most definitely not part of my dreams.
Xiao Kang (2015)
Since I watched a Tsai short after What Time Is It There, I dug up this two-minute, windowboxed, sepia-toned piece focusing on Lee Kang-sheng. Used as a trailer for the Vienna film festival which began last month.
One day I may sit down and watch his entire oeuvre in succession — it’s hard to think of another contemporary filmmaker for which that project would potentially be more revelatory.