The twenty best films of the decade were determined by polling all the major and continuing contributors to Reverse Shot in the publication's history.
Leo Goldsmith on Stray Dogs
It is the first week of the new decade and I am standing at one of the Global Entry kiosks at JFK International Airport. I stare back at the digital camera and try to look suitably annoyed as it photographs my face. And, suddenly, before I can do anything else, it knows me. I’ve hardly touched the machine—haven’t submitted my fingers for print-scan or opened my passport. The cold, electronic eye of the Customs and Border Protection service has already seen my face.
It’s a banal enough experience now, and it’ll only become increasingly commonplace in the years ahead. If you’re reading this on a phone, there’s a good chance your phone is reading you too, trying to learn a little more about what you like to read, what you hate to read, what you like to hate-read. And you probably don’t care—after all, that ship sailed long ago.
This biometric obsession, this ever-expanding impulse to record, collect, and catalog human faces, has me thinking of the cinema’s own preoccupations with the face and the close-up, the registration of emotional reaction and expression. Dreyer and Falconetti, Warhol and “Baby” Jane Holzer, Cassavetes and Rowlands, Acconci and himself: the history of the moving image, its technologies, and its systems of representation form their own kind of facial recognition software avant la lettre. If the cinema now seems a relatively quaint ancestor to China’s Social Credit System and the data-stockpiling initiatives of what Shoshana Zuboff has called “surveillance capitalism,” it nonetheless shares some of the same DNA, codifying and cataloging the surface phenomena of human affect. Warhol’s screen tests were, after all, inspired by an NYPD pamphlet of mug shots.
I’m reminded of this thinking about Tsai Ming-liang’s films and their own fascination with the face—specifically the faces of the actors he’s been working with for the last three decades: Lu Yi-ching, Yang Kuei-mei, Chen Shiang-chyi, and of course Lee Kang-sheng. I think of the final shot of the first Tsai film I saw, 1994’s Vive l’amour, in which Yang sits on a park bench and cries alone in close-up for an eternal six minutes. And I think of the many films Tsai has made about and around Lee’s face and body—one of which is literally called Face. In Stray Dogs, extended close-ups of Lee’s face make up a considerable portion of its 138-minute running time. A half-dozen or so of the film’s eighty shots are trained on Lee’s face alone, watching him smoke, eat, sleep, sing, and stare intently. “We have worked together from 1991 to 2012,” the director states in Stray Dogs’ press kit, “and all I can say is this—his face is my Cinema.”
Stray Dogs demands that we watch these faces, and watch them closely. Its narrative structure is decidedly skeletal, its sense of continuity deliberately attenuated in favor of sequences with no obvious chronology or causal relationship. The plot has something to do with the precarious existence of a family consisting of a single father (Lee) and his two children on the margins of urban Taiwan, and perhaps their salvation by one or more maternal figures—played by Yang, Lu, and Chen, who may or may not be versions of the same character. Even the order of scenes is somewhat unclear and perhaps beside the point. Instead, these sequences—which are frequently single-take observations of discrete actions or tasks—take on pronounced emphasis through the camera’s patient scrutiny. Its final twenty minutes comprises just two shots, the first of which frames Lee and Chen in a close two-shot as they gaze at a large charcoal mural in a swamped subterranean ruin.
Throughout, the film invites us to immerse ourselves in the act of close observation, mostly of those people, places, and moments that exist on the margins of life. Eating, sleeping, urinating, and smoking—the film finds in these liminal actions a kind of Warholian hybridity of performance and reality. The two children at the center of the film’s fractured family unit—played by Lee’s actual niece and nephew, Yi-chieh and Yi-cheng—seem barely to be acting, so naturalistically do they replicate the boredom of childhood, of waiting, of serving as passive participants at the peripheries of the adult world. Lee’s character, whose occupation has him standing stock-still for hours at a time, holding an advertisement in a soggy, cacophonous highway underpass, executes his own durational actions for the camera’s sustained attention. These scenes seem both to bend time as well as the limits of the actor’s and viewer’s endurance, but they also blur any distinction between performance as artifice and as a pure, thoughtless physical response. In the English-language title, there is a sense of the basic animality of the characters, an unmoored quality both in their social standing and in their physical gestures that aligns them with the literal stray dogs that Lu Yi-ching’s character feeds in the sodden concrete burrow of the film’s central section.
Tsai’s enamored scrutiny of his actors’ faces, his clear devotion to their minutest gestures, may seem a million miles from the biometrics of the border or the fried circuits of the attention economy, but isn’t it all part of the same pervasive hunger to see more? As critics, cinephiles, and aesthetes, we often want to claim for art a special status, a domain apart. But it’s incumbent upon us to recognize art’s place within the larger culture of visual capture and consumption in which images are gathered, monetized, even weaponized. The so-called “slow cinema” movement that has been sauntering through the festival circuits over the last couple of decades, and is often said to include Tsai’s work, is frequently lauded as a more “mindful” mode of image-consumption, one that stands in opposition to the gluttonous fast-food alternative of the commercial cinema. And yet Tsai’s films are all about lusty consumption: from Lee’s meticulous stripping of a chicken leg to his repeated tugs on travel-size liquor bottles to his brutal assault and devouring of an anthropomorphic head of cabbage which his children—in what seems to be the film’s lone joke—have named “Miss Big Boobs.” Even the decidedly down-tempo monk Lee portrays in the 2012 short Walker memorably goes to town on a sandwich.
These films are filled with greedy, passionate gourmandizing, and it’s difficult for me to see their intent gaze, this mesmerized mode of looking, as a corrective, rather than an extension, of what we often caricature as popular media consumption. “Slow cinema,” particularly when the term is used to describe East Asian cinema, tends to denote ascetic minimalism, but Tsai’s films are pure excess. Even Stray Dogs, which is devoid of the louche musical spectacles or raw carnality of his earlier films, is still a film of torrential rains and maximalist impulses, its paring down of narrative connective tissue less a mark of restraint than of an intense horniness for rich, infinite reservoirs of human affect. It is not for nothing that we spend so much of the film looking at that mural, a site-specific work by the artist Kao Jun-honn that Tsai apparently discovered by chance while scouting locations. As spectators, we spend nearly twenty minutes of the film looking at that mural—which depicts, in minute monochrome, a typically Taiwanese rural landscape—and as much time looking at the characters look at it as they weep, drink, pee, and, yes, merely look.
Maybe the corrective, if there is one, is to look more passionately at those things that exist at the edges of vision, or otherwise evade our gaze. The film’s original title more literally translates to “outing” or “excursion,” a name with jollier implications but one that also conveys the sense of escape, of only a loose attachment to the confines of the contemporary world. It’s in these spaces that Tsai, long one of the great poets of modern urban infrastructure, places his characters—his films seem continually preoccupied with roofs, gutters, stairwells, cisterns, and asphalt. Inequality, in Tsai’s films, is infrastructural. In Stray Dogs, as in so many of his films, the characters exist at both the literal and psychosocial periphery of the city, rooted in its sometimes too-literal lower depths, drifting through its liminal zones—the supermarket, the mall, the underpass, the grassy interstices between buildings or construction sites. The film’s representations of home, too, are slippery—the family’s living spaces morph from a makeshift encampment in an abandoned hovel to the antiseptic whiteness of a luxury condominium to a mythically out-of-time, windowless interior with walls blasted black as if by some toxic mold or a long-ago inferno.
This instability of place seems oddly appropriate for an artist who has been, in the decades of the new century, as seemingly adrift as the medium itself. Cinema’s technologies and techniques, its systems for audiovisually bestowing a sense of order to the world, may have found homes in more sinister places and institutions, but cinema itself is now a stray medium, floating between sites and devices—the gallery, the festival, the cloud. Stray Dogs was once purported to be Tsai’s cinematic swan song before retirement—like Lynch, Tsai also tried a coffee-related side hustle—and in some ways, the film represents a kind of last stand for an increasingly marginalized medium. If the intensive gaze of Tsai’s films are a way of doubling-down on the compulsive visuality of the cinema, maybe this gaze can still reveal something that lies at the liminal edges of existence, not to track or to quantify it, but to magnify its untidiness, its resistance to the cold, dispassionate, and automatic modes of looking that increasingly determine our lives.