NYFF 2013: Stray Dogs (Jiao You) – Movie Review

Director: Tsai Ming Liang
Writers: Tsai Ming Liang, Tung Chen Yu, Peng Fei
Starring: Chen Shiang-chyi, Lee Kang-sheng, Li Yi-cheng, Lu Yi-ching
Runtime: 138 minutes
Rating: Unrated

Stray Dogs is a film about patience – the patience of the characters trying to survive in Taiwan’s lower class urban belly, as well as the patience of the audience watching. The film tracks a poor, nameless family’s life over a few days’ time. There is the father (Lee Kang-sheng), whose job is to hold up signs advertising high-end condominiums along the highway; his twelve-year-old son (Li Yi-cheng) and six-year-old daughter (Lu Yi-ching), who spend their days exploring riverbeds and looking at groceries in the supermarket; and a female supermarket worker (Chen Shiang-chyi), who feeds stray dogs inside an abandoned building at night. The characters’ actions intertwine and the audience is given a look into the harsh realities facing Taiwan today.

Stray Dogs (Jiao You)

The two adult actors, Lee Kang-sheng and Chen Shiang-chyi, work with director Tsai Ming Liang often, and the children are his godson and goddaughter. Stray Dogs has a chemistry that is completely within the grasp of Tsai. He shows this natural chemistry between characters in the scenes where the children wash their bodies in a public restroom and change into pajamas for the night, and in the close-ups of the faces of the adults, which give the actors freedom to explore their emotional range in long, single takes. As director, Tsai simply lets the camera roll. The audience can then focus on the details on the edges of the screen, and even build emotional connections with the characters.

The child actors are brilliant, living their lives matter-of-factly, and providing the film with humour, especially in the scene where the daughter buys a cabbage to place on the bed like a teddy bear. The humour is much needed, because the adult actors and their struggles paint a bleak picture of urban Taiwan. Everything is in decay; the father’s only real possession is a rusty boat that he hides in the reeds alongside the river, the roads on which the characters walk are often muddy, and one of the final scenes is shot in a rainstorm. These symbols contrast greatly with the film’s Chinese title, Jiao You, which means “a fieldtrip”. In contrast, Stray Dogs is anything but a walk in the park.

Stray Dogs (Jiao You)

It is difficult to stomach the heavy-handed gestures of the film at times, and these gestures only make sense with a proper understanding of Taiwan’s social context. The father recites a famous thousand-year-old verse written by a Chinese hero who wished to take back lands conquered by Northern nomads. The supermarket woman names one of the stray dogs she feeds after the current Taiwanese president. A picture of former Taiwanese president Chiang Kai-shek hangs on the wall of one of the broken-down buildings. These elements add political undertones to the film that are unnecessary. Although the sets are visually pleasing, due to the minimal dialogue in the film, it often feels as though the director is relying too much on cinematography. The film’s last scene is a nearly fifteen-minute-long art exhibit of the two adults’ faces as they stand still, looking at a wall painting outside of the picture, behind the audience. So ironic: the characters are completely focused in art we cannot see, while we gradually lose interest in the art in front of us.

Photo Credits: New York Film Festival