Over the years, ‘slow’ cinema has served up some of the most engrossing, hypnotic permutations of the medium we’ve yet seen. Simply look at Lav Diaz’s acclaimed 4-hour polemepic (our word) Norte, the End of History or the upcoming From What Is Before, which clocks in at over 5 and-a-half hours; both use incredibly long takes and an overall meditative attitude to worm themselves firmly into your brain. Elsewhere, Manakamana, which was released last year, featured a cinematic operandi no more complicated than a static camera staring straight into the faces of a number of unwitting subjects as they rode a cable car over the uneventful Nepalese landscape – and potentially testing the patience of the audience while doing so. While more experimental-thinking pieces of cinema like these – films that aren’t content with ‘entertaining’ the viewer exactly, but instead opt to try and expand our own self-defined horizons of what cinema is – offer a watch that can be frequently frustrating, but also deeply rewarding.
But labelling slow cinema is a ‘permutation’ of the medium, would be lying; it’s the artform at its inarguably purest, relying on the power of the image – and of sound, too – to convey its soul to us (we won’t use the word ‘ideas,’ because that feels too simplistic a phraseology to try and understand the ruminant nature of its form). And that is, after a slow introduction, where we come to Ming-liang Tsai, a famed purveyor of slow cinema, and his new film, Stray Dogs – and how it gets everything wrong. Concerning the poor, nomadic lives of an alcoholic and his two children, the camera pensively follows them through an increasingly bizarre, oblique version of reality as they descend into madness – but a madness mostly experienced by the viewer. There’s nothing wrong with Stray Dogs guarding its secrets so closely, but there’s no joy to be had in its resolute adherence to keeping us out of the loop constantly; instead of dragging us deeper into its tantalising black holes of warped morality (kidnapping is just the tip of the plot’s iceberg), it constantly keeps us on the outside. In occupying the awkward middle-ground between slow cinema and the rigours of a more narrative-driven procedural, we’re left with a movie that confounds and frustrates as much as Norte, the End of History ever did – but with none of the lying-in-bed-at-3:00am payoff afterward.
Stray Dogs languishes in its pacing, while structure is merely an afterthought in Tsai’s unforgiving ideal that a film will magically do its work if we’re left to desperately tread water in an ocean of ambiguity, of the sort that has been pushed beyond the point of absurdity. As much as cinema is technically about showing us pictures, it’s what those pictures are telling us through their showing, and every second of this movie’s patience-testing long takes, where visual storytelling is left to the wayside, further hammers in the nails of its own coffin. It’s left entirely up to the cast to provide some sort of link between the world of this particular film, and us – and they do a grand job at trying, their faces providing rich maps of intense and tangled emotions, particularly in the final scene whose single, near-static penultimate shot lasts a stupefying 13 minutes. Stray Dogs attempts profundity, but it can’t be called slow cinema – rather, it’s just slow.