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14 Minutes of Tsai Ming Liang and the Collision with the Spectacles

August 10, 2018 | By

Taiwanese film-maker Tsai Ming Liang’s latest film Stray Dogs which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 70th Venice International Film Festival is similar to many of his earlier ones with respect to the locale as well as the ‘post-apocalyptic’ feel.  With almost nonlinear continuity Stray Dogs culminates into a final twenty odd minutes of two scenes which are almost motion-less and sublimely eerie.  Short film-maker Abhishek Talukder shies away from reviewing the hauntingly eloquent film. He rather examines these two scenes in conjunction with Marxist theoretician Guy Debord’s monumental work – ‘The Society of Spectacle’.

Tsai Ming Liang

Taiwanese film-maker Tsai Ming Liang

“We’re continually shaped by the forces of coincidence” asserted the well-known writer-director Paul Auster. A few days ago, after finishing Tsai Ming Liang’s last masterpiece, Stray Dogs, I wished to search for some write-ups on the film. When I opened the browser, it offered me to restore the last session, and I happily clicked on ‘OK’. Surprisingly, the most recent site I visited was related to Guy Debord’s monumental work – ‘The Society of Spectacle’. It was indeed a coincidence and my reading of Tsai’s last work was reshaped by the forces of coincidence, which I intend to examine here.

Tsai Ming Liang is the name of that very prodigious talent who deliberately abstain from engaging with anything that resembles the conventional approach to the narrative, and Stray Dogs, an unvarnished representation of the human misery, is no exception to that. The film deals with the sheer nothingness that has surrounded the protagonist, a marginal man, with two kids, who earns by holding up advertising boards. Through the discontinuous images Tsai takes us to a different island where we are left out alone and forced to ponder upon the virtual realities between the on-screen and off-screen contents that not only are valid within the protagonist’s space-time milieu but also have their global relevance and presence. Nonetheless, it ultimately leaves us empty, and after many years, we’ll be thinking that from where and how the man, and also the woman, the second protagonist, did arrive at that unfortunate impasse.

Stray Dogs Taiwanese film

The marginal man who earns a living by holding up advertising boards

However, the main intention here is to discuss not on the film or Tsai Ming Liang, but the last couple of scenes – one is a nearly 14 minutes long, where the two characters looking at something, which is not seen, inside an abandoned building followed by the other scene that lasts for almost seven minutes after which the credit starts rolling. These two consecutive long takes forced me to see the barging in of Debord after I finished watching the film as a coincidence.

I did watch the film couple of times previously as well and those scenes did arrest me with all possible connotations. The viewer needs to dwell on every single screen second of these scenes, as there are no actions or movements whatsoever. Anyway, my banal interpretation to reduce those scenes to simple meditation on postmodernist consternation can neither satisfy the soul, nor does it justify the efficacy of the composition. Of course, it is a meditation on the way time flows unwitnessed through our lives, and when a second can get stretched into several hours, but still, this flat explanation gave in to a new realization when I went through ‘The Society of Spectacle’ again where Debord comments – “The spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life”.

Stray Dogs Taiwanese film

The first of the last two scenes – the man and a woman look at a ‘spectacle’

The spectacle continuously reduces the social and historical factuality to commodifiable fragments, enticing us to focus on appearances fraught with the false ideas of contentment. According to Debord, this constitutes an unprecedented “degradation” of our lives. Spectacles are not a mere collection of images, “but a social relation among people mediated by images”. This encouraged me to a new reading of those last twenty minutes of the film, as previously there was no such common denominator in the genesis of my idea. Tsai, knowingly or unknowingly, invites us to recognize those images within the fourteen-minutes-long and static frame. We just have no other option but to fix our eyes on the couple who are alienated from the product of their own labour and have no other option but to get frozen or stuck in their own position.

Stray Dogs Taiwanese film

The first of the last two scenes – the man and a woman look at a ‘spectacle’

In the final scene, we see, from behind, that the man and the woman stare haplessly at a mural on a wall inside a crumbling building. After some time, the woman leaves the frame, but the man continues to stand still before departing finally. The depth of the space, formed by a crossing of the camera’s gaze with the two characters’ and the viewer’s line of vision, and the one-sidedness depicted in that scene marks the dimensions of spectacle which demands obedience. The poor man, stripped of emotion, has succumbed to the mystery which is opaque – the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing. The present is not present anymore, but a series of references to the past that ceases to exist in the stream of sensations. And as Debord notes, everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation, this particular scene works as an imperative in enforcing us to think of the accumulation of spectacle in the modern age of bold and brazen media. Every minute of this powerful scene reminds us that we, unknowingly, attribute the meaning of our own existence to something else which is beyond our immediate life and enslaved to their representation (we may recall the scene where the man stands motionless on the road, holding the advertising placard) and because of the existing self-contradictions, reality ceased to appear as a datum of experience.

In today’s world, emotion is easily converted, sometimes unknowingly, into a saleable package, destroying the soul of it. The man in the film is pushed to such an extent that he seizes to feel his own existence and desire and starts asking questions to the wall in front without even saying a thing. Even when he tries to hug the woman, like the latter, we remain unmoved. His touch fails to evoke any emotion as both of them become consumers of illusion where no physical reality stands true, and the empty space, on which the camera fixes its gaze, emerges in the visual plane of concrete characters as a consequence of the action. In the age of “work harder buy more”, these two successive scenes are the perfect manifestation of “false consciousness” from which people are suffering. Tsai dares to compel the viewers to concentrate on the image for almost twenty-one minutes when hardly anything happens physically, and we must give the time to him sincerely to understand how the spectacle “builds its unity on the disjunction” and carry the film through. The reality, comes into being through the spatialization of time, we encounter cannot be replaced by any other experience, which is the mark of a true artistic creation. Although Debord wrote this article quite many decades back when technological progress was just slowly gaining pace, we can still apply his thoughts into the present times when technology decides our daily course of action(s). At least, Stray Dogs entices me to do so. Probably now is the time to remove our old spectacles for a clearer vision.

The last two scenes of Tsai Ming Liang’s Stray Dogs

More to read

Three Times: Temporal Poetics of Hou Hsiao-hsien

In Argument with Beauty – Once upon a Time in Anatolia

The Medium as the Message: Cinematic Intertextuality in Im Kwon-Taek’s The General’s Son

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Abhishek Talukder is a software engineer and an independent film maker. His very first short film, Ria, was showcased in Cannes Short Film corner in 2013 and won several awards in the Lake City International Film Festival, Bhopal. He has been an active member of the Cine Club of Naihati for the last three years. His next feature, Antabiheen, is due for release in February 2015.
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