When Lee’s daughter asks her new caretaker why the apartment is such a mess, she answers, “A house is like a person. It gets sick, grows old. The cracks in the walls are like its wrinkles. You see? Every house has a story.” The cracks, textures, debris, and brokenness of buildings are representative of the experiences of the building, the lifetime of the building. But the association is not unidirectional. For Tsai, the person is like a house, the body an ever-aging building.
* * *
Ins and Outs
Tsai Ming-liang’s 2013 feature, Stray Dogs, follows the mundane yet challenging daily life of a nameless father played by Lee Kang-sheng, who makes an evidently scant living holding signs advertising businesses, and Lee’s children who spend their time at the mall and at grocery stores while he works. They squat in a makeshift room in an abandoned building and wash in a public restroom when they get the chance. There are literal stray dogs in the movie, and the timing of their two appearances is auspicious, but it’s quickly obvious that this small family is a figurative pack of stray dogs, living where there’s just enough space, eating whatever is available.
However, the film’s title in Chinese is 郊遊, jiao you, which translates to “excursion,” or “going out.” Because their everyday lives are so unstructured, there are any number of excursions throughout the film. Each day seems like an excursion in which these stray dogs go out to scavenge their food for the day. In separate shots at the beginning of the film, Lee boards a small boat, pushing through the reeds into the water, while his children emerge from a forest. In this way, the movie is posed as one large excursion, all of the actors entering from remote places as a sign of their going out into the world. But to go on an excursion, to go out, suggests there is a return, a coming back inside. At the end of the film, Lee Kang-sheng is led to a second-story room of an abandoned building we’ve seen once previously. Although it’s Lee’s first time here, it feels like a return somehow. A tension between the interior and the exterior permeates the film and reaches a sort of climax near its end. We’re left wondering if we’ve witnessed Lee’s excursion over the course of the movie, or if it isn’t until he stands in this room that his journey begins.
Four Minutes/A Frame
I start Stray Dogs from the two hour and five minute mark and wait until the film cuts to its final shot – a long take of about seven minutes. A woman who seems to be the new guardian of Lee Kang-sheng’s children shrugs Lee off of her. He embraces her at the end of the previous shot in a pathetic final attempt to find some sort of comfort in an otherwise austere and unforgiving series of events taking place over an indeterminate amount of time – it seems their whole lives have been like this. She leaves the room with her flashlight, the source of light a beam guiding them to this abandoned, brutalist, concrete structure that houses a pack of stray dogs on its first floor and seems ready to collapse at any moment. Lee Kang-sheng, who is in all 11 of Tsai Ming-liang’s features as well as a number of other short and experimental films, stands alone in the darkness of this strange room for the next four minutes until he, too, exits the room, leaving the shot actorless.
The frame I’ll write about is in this four-minute block, that’s all I know for sure. This room with its moonlike ceiling, its huge windows, empty of glass, that let ambient city light fall across the room onto the far wall. The only real color in the frame is the speck of green treetops from outside the building that, despite the movie’s omnipresent wind and torrential rain, hardly sway. Detritus, debris like stones and pebblesm is scattered across the entire floor of the building, giving the room a texture that mirrors the scene represented in an inexplicably well-kept mural placed at the end of the room, in the center of the frame. The mural shows a rocky riverside, mountains in the distance. There is perhaps more of the natural world in this mural than in the rest of the film. And of course, Lee Kang-sheng, Tsai’s muse, stands in the center of the screen. Would it be worth talking about a frame of a Tsai film if Lee weren’t in it? Over the next four minutes, until he leaves the room, Lee is the only thing that moves.
I pause and take a screenshot as soon as the woman is out of sight. I hit play and let the movie continue until Lee moves slightly and I pause again. He’s more hunched now. I wonder if this body language better represents the mood of the scene. I hit play again and let the scene continue. A sort of magic reveals itself as I watch this long take for the twentieth time. The minutes unfold but I have no idea how much time has passed even though I’ve noted the time-stamp of every cough, every slight movement. Near the end of the scene Lee raises a bottle of alcohol he took from his children’s new home, a run-down apartment, finishing the remainder, and then throws the glass bottle on the ground, where it shatters, disappears into the floor’s topography. I pause, and go back until I find the moment where he lifts the bottle to his mouth and take a final screenshot.
I let the movie continue to play as I pull up the screenshots I’ve just taken and compare them to each other. These still frames come from the far corners of a four-minute period, and yet the small differences in Lee’s position do little to set one frame apart from the others. I select one where Lee appears slightly more dejected and wonder if I’ve made a mistake, chosen the wrong frame. But how? This frame on the surface is Tsai distillate. The crumbling building, the lack of movement, the texture, the anticlimax, and Lee Kang-sheng’s body in the center of a wide shot. And yet something is missing from this frame. From this frame and the others, nearly identical. As this thought puzzles me, I realize that the sound in the movie is still playing. The sound of Lee’s feet shuffling in the rubble has stopped, but the sound of traffic and wind and city continues. Without even switching back to the window in which the film is playing, I’m transported into the room where Lee stands. The sound fades out and the camera rolls for twenty seconds, in silence, then cuts to black.
The frame is often thought of as the smallest valuable unit in a film. You can learn a lot about the kinds of choices a director makes by studying the mise-en-scène of one moment, how they use a camera to capture lighting, and how it interacts with the actors and the set, how they capture the expression on the actors’ faces, their body language, and how these plus any other number of details relate to the atmosphere of the film, the forwarding of the plot, the dynamics between characters. With the help of the pause button, you can give true meaning to this fraction of a second.
Close Your Eyes
As I struggle to pick which of several similar frames best captures the essence of Stray Dogs, and more broadly Tsai’s spirit as a filmmaker, I think of something the director himself said in an interview with Dennis Lim, the New York Film Festival’s Director of Programming, this fall when his newest feature, Days, was on the 2020 NYFF main slate. When asked about the elements of time and duration in his films, Tsai responded (with Vincent Cheng as his interpreter):
I want to somehow give the audience the decision whether or not they either want to walk away from this particular viewing experience – they can close their eyes if they want to. And I do think that it is the right length or duration for a scene. I, as the director, am someone who can decide how long I’m going to give you, but at the same time, you as an audience, you have the decision-making power to decide how much you want to be part of. . . . And as I mentioned, if this is not for you, you can walk away. If this is way too long for you, you can close your eyes without going through the entire duration of the images that I am presenting.
This is a generous sentiment from a film director, and yet falls in line with his movement away from traditional cinema-viewing experiences, away from traditional modes of narration and storytelling, and toward more curated experiences in art museums in the past decade.
Then again, doesn’t this sentiment actually complicate my task of choosing a frame? On one hand, anyone who has seen one of Tsai’s films can see the care he takes in selecting which shots make it into the finished films, often choosing from a backlog of clips collected in years prior. He has also talked about how important lighting is to constructing long takes, how the body entering the frame changes the lighting, how he captures the faces and bodies of his actors. His movies are evidence enough that their frames are entities worth studying. And yet he seems to be unperturbed by the thought of his audience taking a moment for themselves, closing their eyes, disengaging with the visual aspect of the film. If Tsai doesn’t mind his viewers closing their eyes during his films, it seems that his concept of film might not rely so heavily on the sense of vision that the film experience is stopped by a temporary removal of sight.
What is Tsai’s concept of film then? How does the frame play in? How does the sense of sight?
Every House Has a Story
Along with Lee Kang-sheng, the city is arguably Tsai’s most frequent recurring character, and so apartments, hotels, buildings of all types play an important role in his films. Old, crumbling, cramped, dysfunctional, and dilapidated rooms and structures in particular are omnipresent in Tsai’s oeuvre. The apartment that the scammers live in in Tsai’s first feature, Rebels of the Neon God (1992), floods when the plumbing backs up, carrying trash over its drenched tile. The young protagonist of Days (2020) lives in a tiny apartment where grooming and cooking are executed in the bathroom; the cracked-window façade of an old skyscraper occupies the entire screen for several minutes in another long take. Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003) documents the final showing of a movie in an old Taipei cinema that is to be shut down for good. And Stray Dogs (2013) moves from the secret room in an abandoned building where Lee shares a single mattress with his children, to the dingy apartment where his children ultimately live with their new caretaker, to the falling-apart concrete building where the film ends. What is Tsai’s preoccupation with the image of the run-down building?
There is, of course, the advantage of the aesthetic of old and crumbling structures.
Tsai’s films uniquely capture the character of these buildings by emphasizing their cracks, their textures, their proximity to unattainable, luxurious locales – all signs of their approaching expiration dates, their futility. In fact, one of the few lines of coherent dialogue in Stray Dogs refers directly to the idea of the falling-apart building. When Lee’s daughter asks her new caretaker why the apartment is such a mess, she answers, “A house is like a person. It gets sick, grows old. The cracks in the walls are like its wrinkles. You see? Every house has a story.” The cracks, textures, debris, and brokenness of buildings are representative of the experiences of the building, the lifetime of the building. But the association is not unidirectional. For Tsai, the person is like a house, the body an ever-aging building.
It’s perhaps no surprise that Tsai is obsessed with the falling-apart building given what he has said about working with Lee Kang-sheng for nearly three decades. Lee has gone through periods of debilitating illness, physical difficulty, and has aged considerably through their long association. Tsai and his audience alike have watched Lee’s body change over his entire career. Referring to one of Lee’s periods of illness and recovery, Tsai said, “I realized the body could be out of one’s control. I saw the vulnerability of the body. I felt that’s a powerful subject that I should be concerned with . . . Eventually, I realized I couldn’t pull the camera away from his face.” In Tsai’s concept of cinema, the building and the body occupy similar territory. The city, the building, and the body are all living things. However, Tsai is not the only one to have considered this connection between the building and the body.
In 1996, Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa published his book The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses, which proposes a phenomenology of architecture – the idea that architecture allows us to consider our human experience, to contemplate and create our reality. In his own words, “Architecture does not make us inhabit worlds of mere fabrication and fantasy; it articulates the experience of our being-in-the-world and strengthens our sense of reality and self.” There is a nuanced but significant distinction to be gleaned from this. Pallasmaa, and I think Tsai, too, believes that architecture is not just a metaphor for the human experience, and certainly does not just exist to excite the imagination, but is actually a mode through which we might better understand our existence.
As the subtitle of the book suggests, one of the primary ways that architecture shapes our understanding of reality is by eliciting us to use our senses to interact with it. In fact, our senses are the most basic way that we can interact with our reality. In The Eyes of the Skin, Pallasmaa expresses his concern with a phenomena he calls “ocularcentrism” – the idea that vision has been the historically favored sense in the West. Vision has been considered the noblest sense for many reasons, but perhaps the worst symptom of this belief has been the lessened importance placed on the sense of touch. The book suggests that the sense organs are all just “specialisations of skin tissue, and all sensory experiences are modes of touching.” Although the eye has been disproportionately favored as a mode of interacting with the world, this does not make vision obsolete in and of itself. “The eyes want to collaborate with the other senses,” Pallasmaa reminds us: particularly salient advice for the viewer of Tsai’s films.
I go back to that four-minute segment of stationary camera long take from the end of Stray Dogs, but this time as I look at the screen I try to pay extra attention to how I interact with the film, how the film interacts with my body.
At first, my eyes focus on Lee Kang-sheng. He’s in the center of the frame, after all, and Tsai has a way of making Lee’s body the most compelling part of any shot. But after a few moments, with so little movement to keep my attention on Lee, I feel my eyes begin to wander. I look to the mural first, but it has no specific focal point, so my eyes soften, grazing the contours of the distant mountains, and I lose focus slightly. My eyes naturally begin to meander around the screen, slipping in and out of the convolutions of the heavily textured floor with its maze of debris. I check to see if the trees are moving because I can hear them. They aren’t, not perceptibly. Lee has shifted. What is it about the way that Tsai captures Lee on-screen that makes him such a compelling subject?
Even in extreme close-ups, Lee has a certain way of resisting acting in any traditional sense. There isn’t emotion, per se, and there is typically little overt movement or staging in these shots. I think of Pallasmaa and try to engage with the shot in a different way. I can hear Lee, his grunting, breathing, shuffling, drinking, swallowing, dropping a bottle. These details aren’t just sounds, and his small changes in posture aren’t just visual cues. These elements give the scene a hapticity, a tangible quality. The textures, the lighting, the sound of the city in the distance, the infrequent movements and utterances of Lee coalesce into a multisensory experience. It’s as if I’m standing in the room. As if I’m in Lee’s body. As if the frame is alive.
Inhabiting the Frame
Once again I compare the handful of screenshots I took earlier, trying to see if this architectural paradigm has given me any insight into which frame is best. I realize that I need to rethink what the frame is at all. While a frame in technical terms is just one of tens of thousands of still pictures played in succession to trick our eyes into perceiving movement, in a deeper sense the frame is the smallest interpretable unit in a film, the smallest cinematic unit worth ascribing value to. I think in an effort to more accurately capture the experience of a moment, to capture the feeling of the always-just-gone “present,” Tsai has perhaps inadvertently redefined what can be considered a frame.
For Tsai, the stationary long take is a frame of sorts in that it is the smallest valuable unit. There is something not quite right about regarding two technically different frames from that four-minute segment as having different mise-en-scene, or as having foundationally different functions in the film. There is so little visual change between them that it doesn’t feel constructive to call them different frames. Those four minutes of relative stillness allow the eye to act as if it were looking at a single, traditionally defined frame, a frozen moment in time.
By keeping the camera still but giving us sound, and emphasizing the hapticity of the scene through the form of the falling-apart building, the just-barely-moving actor, Tsai gifts the audience a unique opportunity. For four minutes, we inhabit the frame. For four minutes, we exist inside the reality of the film. For four minutes, we experience the reality of the film with not just our eyes, but with our whole bodies. Pallasmaa says that “an architectural work is not experienced as a collection of isolated visual pictures, but in its fully embodied material and spiritual presence.” To watch a film by Tsai Ming-liang is to embody the spirit of the present moment, which cannot be achieved by pausing time, but only by coming to terms with the fact that time cannot be paused.