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Tsai Ming-liang, whose feature I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone and short Walker screened within past MFFs, has always specialized in painterly long takes limited only by the length of a reel of film. In this first digital feature, those limits no longer apply. The result is a master filmmaker pushing his aesthetic to its extreme, holding some frames beyond the mark which film has led us to view as some sort of “natural limit”—and breaking through this construct into terra incognita.
As with each of his prior features, Tsai's latest film finds its focus in enigmatic leading man Lee Kang-sheng. This unique collaboration has extended over 25 years, and while each film functions perfectly as a complete work in isolation, they can also be read collectively as one continuous piece. Here Tsai situates Lee as a homeless guardian to two children in Taipei, thanklessly earning meager pocket change braving the elements as a living billboard for a new condo development. With moments both mundane and painful, as well as a few welcome explosions of Tsai’s truly bizarre sense of humor, we experience with them lives lived on the margins of a rain-swept metropolis. Tsai has no pat resolutions for his characters, but he clearly believes that life, even when lived under the worst of circumstances, can offer a few glimpses of otherworldly beauty.
Never let it be said that our program notes are anything less than honest: Stray Dogs is a slow film, one that may feel too slow for some viewers. But for the brave and the bold among you, the sort of festivalgoer who cheered our 35mm print of The Turin Horse and luxuriated in all of Leviathan’s digital dissonance, Stray Dogs might just be a revelation. And if you're already a Tsai convert, you know that each new work from this master of cinema is a cause for celebration. (Eric Allen Hatch)