How much you enjoy Tsai Ming-Liang’s Stray Dogs, released in the UK this week, will depend entirely on how much you enjoy the obscurantism that so often characterises the Foreign and Arthouse cinema scene. Its plot is thinly drawn, its characters broader than the Rio de la Plata and much of the film’s 135 minute running time is taken up by long static shocks of its characters in complete silence. Yet for all the artistic indulgence it is undeniable that the film spins a slow, meditative tale with a distinct theme.

The film returns Ming-Liang to Taipei, the city featured so prominently in his early works, to look at urban poverty from the perspective of one family. Single father Hsiao Kang (Kang-Sheng Lee) ekes out a living stoically stood holding up signs on a busy city interchange. Kang-Sheng is almost impassively still as both the elements and sounds of the city batter against him.

Without his supervision his children (Yi Cheng Lee and Yi Chieh Lee) are left to wander the supermarkets and public spaces, tiny creatures in a vast, sterile and uncaring environment. When reunited they retire to either the dank abandoned building they squat in or the serene outdoor spaces they enjoy during the day.

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Individual scenes have little or no connectivity. Many of them proceed at a slow plodding pace, gradually building towards a fundamental change in the characters’ relationship. The family does not so much breakdown as erode just in time for a surrogate mother figure to emerge. Kuei-Mei Yang plays the ‘mother’, a worker in one of the supermarkets the children loiter in. This Good Samaritan is the one who spends her free time feeding the city’s stray dogs, only to find her role subverted by another in a telling metaphor for the family.

It’s true that the symbolism leans on the heavy-handed. The objectification of Kang through his role as a walking signpost, an escape by the river directly reminiscent of Night of the Hunter and of course the stray dogs themselves. Thankfully it is the subtleties in the performances that make up for it, Kang-Sheng in particular. The reason that many of the long, silent scenes of contemplation are the gradual transformation that comes over Kang’s face. Under Ming-Liang’s direction an entire character arc can take place gradually, wordlessly over the course of a single shot.

stray dogsStray Dogs is, as one would imagine, a melancholy piece but there is beauty in the sadness. It knows how to balance poverty and deprivation with childhood levity, making you sympathise all the more. Ming-Liang knows how to emphasise tragedy without beating an audience into submission.

At times Stray Dogs will test your patience, perhaps even frustrate you but stay with it and you will be richer for the experience.