Stray Dogs: Watching Cinema Disappear

Written by Tiago de Luca

With 10 feature-length films to his credit, Tsai is a central figure in what is now broadly referred to as ‘slow cinema’, one of the main tenets of which is the sustained application of the long take. The slowness of Tsai’s cinema is often produced through a pronounced lack of movement: whether we are looking at the stillness of the camera, that of diegetic action, or both combined. Indeed, his work is especially fascinating because it has pursued a radicalisation of both forms of stillness over the course of 20 years, with his films becoming less attached to narrative structures and consequently crossing over into the realm of the museum.

Released in 2013, Tsai’s Stray Dogs can be seen as the aesthetic culmination in Tsai’s work in which cinema – understood as a medium, a practice and an institution – dissolve into new forms and migrate into new spaces. Like all Tsai films, Stray Dogs features Tsai’s muse Lee Kang-sheng, here playing the role of an alcoholic homeless father who, perversely, makes a living by holding up luxury property advertising placards. But while the social grounding of Tsai’s cinema is here stronger than ever, as evidenced by the film’s unflinching focus on urban destitution, there is hardly a storyline to be followed in Stray Dogs, with the film stitching together curious events that often appear as stand-alone audiovisual tableaus. In particular, the film is punctuated by the cryptic apparition of a painted rectangular mural before which characters become transfixed, thus opening up a space for spectatorial reflection on questions of aesthetic experience and intermediality.

This enigmatic mural is an installation by the Taiwanese artist Kao Jun-hohn. While researching the photographic archives of the region of Taoyuan for a project on the remnants of the coal industry in southern Taipei, Kao stumbled upon a series of images of the Liugiu village in Kaohsiung City, taken in 1871 by a Scottish traveller named John Thomson. Seeing this image as a ‘historical fragment’ of that particular era as immortalised by a Eurocentric gaze, Kao decided to alter these photographs by turning them into enlarged drawings painted with charcoal on the walls of abandoned spaces, one of which was accidentally chanced upon by Tsai when location scouting for Stray Dogs.

What is fascinating here is how the trajectory of these two practitioners, working with different materials and mediums, converged in an industrial ruinous site, which is a recurrent motif in their work and a place of hybridisation par excellence. In Tsai’s case, a ruinous aesthetic is often exploited for its ability to oscillate between dystopian and utopian frames as connected with the disappearance and transformation of cinema. This is proved by Goodbye Dragon Inn (2004) and his short It’s a Dream (2006), both of which took place in dilapidated theatres, with Tsai further transplanting the cinema seats that appeared in the latter into an ensuing museum installation prior to the cinema’s demolition. By contrast, Kao’s transformation of the photograph into a painted intervention and its relocation to the walls of a building in ruins arguably calls to mind an abandoned museum that also carries associations with the cinema, if only because of the mural’s gigantic size and rectangular format, which evokes a widescreen.

 

Figure 1
Figure 1

 

Figure 2
Figure 2

 

Stray Dogs capitalises on these associations by placing characters contemplating this image in darkness and carrying a torch whose light beam brings to mind that of a projector (Figure 1 & 2). Further, the mural is seen as being seen by characters whose very immobility brings to the fore the question of spectatorial activity. They stand for minutes on end and much of the scene’s anticipation relates to whether and/or when they will perform any gesture or movement. Their performative stillness, in turn, resonates with the stillness of the painting, which results in a kind of short-circuit that heightens the staged inaction of the filmed scene as a whole. This mise-en-abime is visually compounded by the high-angle perspectival framing. The centrally positioned mural in the background offers a receding mirror of smaller proportions of the film’s own frame, thus reinforcing its cinematic associations and the fact that these characters mirror the spectators watching the film.

In many ways, this long take thus brings about an enhanced cognizance of the viewing process in a manner not dissimilar to that elicited by the famous shot of an empty cinema auditorium in Goodbye Dragon Inn (Figure 3), a cognizance that is directly related with the fact that these two shots give the spectator plenty of time to study images in their protracted immobility. Yet Stray Dogs more overtly foregrounds the question of aesthetic experience by forging a correspondence between painting appreciation and film spectatorship while introducing the figure of the spectator back into the image. Here it is worth recalling how spectatorial inscription has taken different forms as associated with the blurring of exhibition spaces in Tsai’s work. For, if Goodbye Dragon Inn reveals a disused cinema materialised in the stark barrenness of empty seats, and if the spectatorial process associated with cinema would be transposed into a museum through the relocation of actual disused cinema seats in It’s a Dream, then the final image of Stray Dogs, which features only a still image on the wall, no seats at all and standing observers, smuggles something of the mode of aesthetic apprehension associated with the museum into the cinema.

Figure 3
Figure 3

 

This idea appears to gain in significance when we consider that this long take anticipates its own ensuing mode of experience, since, like It’s a Dream, the film was transformed in early 2015 into the multi-channel installation Stray Dogs at the Museum for the Times Museum in Guangzhou, China (Figure 4). Composed of foam seats and with scenes projected onto sloping walls and fabric, the installation confirms that, for Tsai, cinema has now become fully interchangeable with the museum.

Figure 4
Figure 4

 

Dr Tiago de Luca is an Associate Professor in Film Studies, Department of Film and Television Studies at University of WarwickImage Credit: 

*This is a slightly modified excerpt from my chapter ‘Watching Cinema Disappear: Intermediality and Aesthetic Experience in Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003) and Stray Dogs (2013)’, originally published in John Gibbs and Douglas Pye (eds), The Long Take: Critical Approaches (Palgrave, 2018). I thank the editors and the publisher for granting me the permission to publish this excerpt.

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