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What a difference a year and a half make. Time for oblivion to grow rampant across movieland. In September 2013 Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs — a poetic, voluptuous, tragic-absurdist masterpiece from Taiwan — was narrowly pipped to the Venice Golden Lion by an Italian feature documentary. “Chauvinism!” jeered protesting press folk, though Tsai at least got to wave a runner-up Grand Jury Prize. In May 2015 Stray Dogs slinks into town — London, England, at least — without even a press show. It has become, for distribution purposes, just another wacky, unclassifiable eastern art flick. Who needs that in a week boasting a Harrison Ford weepie, a Chris Rock comedy and a feature debut by celebrity telly-satirist Jon Stewart?
Short answer: we all need it. If you’re a sapient, sentient cinephile, you need it. It’s the week’s best film, a mind-enlarging marvel, messianic with crazed poetry. Tsai is a director the film festival world has loved for decades. He made Vive L’Amour (Venice Golden Lion 1994), The River, Goodbye Dragon Inn and other cinematic serenades — some actually singing, dancing and full-on-musical — to the jungles of defiance and imagination that can live, even flourish, in poor cities.
Most of his movies, upbeat and downbeat simultaneously, are about rain, ruined buildings and humans attempting self-recreation. Here his favourite star, Lee Kang-sheng, plays the “human billboard” dad to a family living out of hovels. He earns a pittance by advertising house rentals at a busy crossroads. Yes, that’s an irony: a homeless man selling homes. But it’s the only fast-food metaphor you’ll get. The rest is arduous, heavenly scavenging in a virtually plotless plot.
There are enigmatically related characters. There are moody longueurs gorgeous with rain or longing. There are madcap entr’actes of comedy or tragedy: from the motherless kids bestowing wig and make-up on a watermelon and calling her “Miss Big Boobs” — with dad following up with a tour de force of cannibalistic appreciation — to the eerie nocturnes in an abandoned building where characters converge, a little spectrally, along with the stray dogs they resemble. The main meeting point is the space before a large, graffiti-ish mural depicting a pastoral scene worthy of John Ford. It’s like a focus of distilled yearning, bringing together the movie’s diverse people and its diverse parts.
Tsai actually found this place and its painting. He’s a genius of the trouvaille. Life in his cinema is anywhere that you find . . . well, life. Sometimes it’s a life rich, even when penurious, with a kind of beyond-life. While never romanticising poverty, Stray Dogs is a grown-up fairytale. It steps into those realms of oneiric enchantment that can be, for the lucky or the visionary, a gifting dividend of disenchantment.