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Film Review: "Stray Dogs"


Master Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang is infamous for his deliberate pacing and use of extremely long takes, frequently composed as master shots, in which little action occurs on screen. Perhaps understandably, this sort of technique has earned him as many admirers as it has detractors. He forces the audience to wait and observe, letting us interpret events for ourselves as he draws our attention toward stories of alienation, loss, and regret. The director -- who announced his retirement at this year's Venice International Film Festival, where "Stray Dogs" was awarded the Grand Jury Prize -- makes films that can be a challenge, but prove immensely rewarding if you're up to the task.

"Stray Dogs" follows a single father (played by Tsai's frequent star, Lee Kang-sheng) and his two children, a son and a young girl, as they struggle to survive in modern day Taipei. The father works as a human billboard, advertising affordable rates for luxury apartments, while his children spend their days wandering the outskirts of the city, collecting free food samples from the supermarket when they're hungry. The family comes together at the end of the day to spend their nights in an abandoned apartment building. There's not much plot to speak of, the film functions as a melancholy portrayal of life amidst the ruins of poverty.

Though it's a demanding watch, the film is hardly a wallow in the misery of the underclass; the film is filled with moments of warmth and humor. Despite there being little money, the children seem to have a relatively happy life, even as the family's situation weighs heavily on their father. The film is heavy with compassion for the people too often viewed as the refuse of society.

Credit must be given to the remarkable performances from the actors, who must transition between emotions without benefit of cuts. The film's final shots (one of which is a nearly 12-minute take) in particular have a staggering power. Tsai's studied pacing and extended takes may sometimes test his audience's patience, but they allow viewers the time to focus on the small details and the way that every faint flicker of emotion contains a cryptic beauty.