Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times has an incredible sequence that is perhaps not talked about as often as other sequences in that movie. It happens when the Tramp and Paulette Goddard are on the road and they pass by a billboard advertising a middle-class family life. The film presents a dream sequence where the poor couple enact the roles of the bourgeois life. Then in reality, the tramp and Goddard find an awful hovel of a house which they claim as their home and they then act out their dream roles in the reality of that hovel which they pretend is an upscale modern house with amenities. In a simple contrast, Chaplin suggests a great deal about the experience of poverty. It is one thing to suggest and another to show, that job is taken up by Tsai in this film.
Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs presents that same contrast and persistence in his film. There are few films which deal with the matter-of-factness of poverty as Tsai’s film does. A poor family bathe and wash their kids in public restrooms, they eat poorly and subsist barely scrounging around the city and relieve themselves of urine and excrement publicly. Tsai never dials down or explains the poverty, though the dialogue makes references to the Tsunami with echoes of the financial crisis. In one amazing sequence, Lee Kang-sheng, breaks in a rich and wealthy house and squats there for the night, wearing a suit and pant and sleeping happily and restfully for the first time, free from his family obligations to his children. The film is full of surprises, especially an incredible fade-out to black that forms the start of the film’s astonishing coda.
Stray Dogs is said to be Tsai’s last film. He has announced a retirement from making feature films at least. If so, it’s a dark and haunting note to leave on. I hope he sticks around longer. If only for Lee Kang-sheng’s sake, who gives a great performance despite having very little dialogue and plot to create a character. There are very few films as mysterious as this.