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Stray Dogs

Cinema Guild // Unrated // February 10, 2015
List Price: $34.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted March 1, 2015 | E-mail the Author

It's been a while since a film made me feel as thoroughly uncomfortable as Ming-liang Tsai's Stray Dogs (2014), a slow-burning examination of family life on the outer edge of modern civilization. Our nameless central character is played by Tsai regular Kang-Sheng Lee; he's a single father who works long, miserable hours holding advertising placards for very little pay while his two children loiter in grocery stores and shopping malls during business hours. At night, they share food and sleep in an abandoned building; there is no comfort except in the company of one another, and it's obvious that life is beginning to bear down on all three of them. Eventually, a supermarket clerk takes pity on the young children, but the physically and mentally decimated father may already be too far gone.

Ming-liang Tsai has directed more than a dozen feature-length films and even more shorts and documentary segments during the last 25+ years. In comparison to most of them, Stray Dogs is not unusually structured: it also features extremely long, mostly static takes that are almost completely dialogue-free and use no traditional music cues, making them feel like surreal and meditative clips from a raw documentary. These are homeless people and there is something of a routine to their everyday life: food is eaten, limited social interactions are made and, though they don't own the building they sleep in, it serves as their place of residence for the time being. Not surprisingly, there's a persistent level of unpredictability and loneliness during the bulk of Stray Dogs, which not-so-subtly compares its central family to a pack of roaming canines, also featured during a handful of scenes. Unforgiving downpours drench man and beast, and we're also stuck outside without a raincoat or umbrella. They gnaw on chicken bones while we watch them eat, unsure if the way they're devouring such food is repulsive in its desperation.

These static takes prove to be Stray Dogs' greatest asset and biggest handicap. Without them, we might not feel as obligated to reflect on the otherwise forgettable actions on screen...but presented non-stop as part of a film that exceeds 130 minutes, such a format will most definitely test the patience of anyone new to this style of filmmaking. Either way, it's a long haul: I'll admit that it took me three sessions to make it through Stray Dogs...but to be fair, that's because it's almost impossible to watch it alone as I did. Film like this almost require the addition of a suitably patient second or third audience member, if only to provide a substitute for the necessary social comfort that Stray Dogs completely refuses to deliver. Needless to say, if you're new to this film or the work of director Ming-liang Tsai in general, Cinema Guild's Blu-ray is worth watching...but probably not worth owning.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Stray Dogs is not necessarily a film with demanding visuals---after all, it almost plays like a static slide-show except for maybe a dozen or two camera pans---but most of the striking close-ups and careful compositions look absolutely terrific on this 1.78:1, 1080p transfer. Textures and image detail are often top-notch, colors are crisp and well-rendered, black levels are strong, and shadow detail holds up nicely during most of the dimly-lit interior scenes. No flagrant digital imperfections could be spotted along the way, though a few scenes shot during unfavorable weather conditions obviously exhibit a more limited level of quality. Overall, though, this is a fantastic transfer of new source material and fans will be pleased with Cinema Guild's efforts in this department.

DISCLAIMER: The screen captures featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent this Blu-ray's native 1080p resolution.

Likewise, the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix is impressive even without regularly being put to the test. Though most of the audio is anchored up front, a handful of scenes (pouring rain, heavy traffic) broaden the soundstage considerably, while indoor sequences are much more subdued. Channel separation and panning effects are limited but noticeable. In all honesty, the film's atmosphere is strong enough when it needs to be and the general lack of rear channels is rarely missed. As mentioned earlier, dialogue is extremely limited and certainly not a focal point, but optional English subtitles have been included during the film and extras for audio and partial text translation.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

The quiet, minimalist interface offers smooth navigation and a refreshing lack of pre-show warnings. This one-disc release is housed in a standard keepcase; also included is a brief but fascinating printed Essay by former Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. The Blu-ray appears to be unlocked for region-free playback.

Bonus Features

Not much, but what's here is of good quality. First up is Journey to the West (Xi you, 2013), a 56 minute short film also directed by Ming-liang Tsai. Like the main feature, it's a slow-burning and meditative slice of storytelling; this time around, our subject is a slow-moving monk (played by Kang-Sheng Lee, who also serves as the central figure in Stray Dogs) travelling through bustling urban landscapes. It's almost surreal in its framing and the contrast of speeds, and will test the patience of many viewers with its long takes and lack of traditional narrative.

Also here is a lengthy Interview with the director at Cinematheque Francaise (69 minutes); recorded on December 30, 2014, this casual session is run through an interpreter from Mandarin to French, and then subtitled in English. This drawn-out format takes some getting used to, but the director's comments are worthwhile and often surprisingly funny in their level of self-deprecation. Last but not least is the film's Theatrical Trailer, also presented in 1080p.

Final Thoughts

Stray Dogs is a long, slow-burning, and almost completely dialogue-free film that will test the patience of anyone unfamiliar with the work of director Ming-liang Tsai. It's an incredibly uncomfortable and dark picture of poverty, isolation, and loneliness in the middle of a sprawling urban landscape and, for this reason, may prove too unsettling for viewers to watch alone. Whether you make it through in one shot or watch the film over the course of several days, most will not want to revisit it for a long time, which may limit the lasting appeal of Cinema Guild's Blu-ray. On paper, this is a terrific package with strong A/V quality and a few valuable extras...but even though it scores high marks in just about every category, the film's low replay value and limited audience makes this more of a "try before you buy" disc. Die-hard fans of the director may want to indulge; everyone else should Rent It first.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.
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