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CIFF Director Spotlight: Tsai Ming-liang

Stray Dogs follows in the tradition of Chaplin and Ozu.

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Tsai Ming-liang - ANDREAS RENTZ/GETTY IMAGES
  • Andreas Rentz/Getty Images
  • Tsai Ming-liang

The 49th Chicago International Film Festival

Director spotlights

Italian horror master Dario Argento presents Dracula 3D in person.

James Gray, director of We Own the Night and Two Lovers, presents The Immigrant.

Chicago native John McNaughton's The Harvest is the director's first theatrical feature in over a decade.

Now that "slow cinema" is an established subgenre of contemporary art movies, Tsai Ming-liang's filmmaking may not seem as unique today as it did in the mid-90s, when the Taiwanese writer-director first came to international prominence with Vive L'Amour (1994) and The River (1997). The films of Lisandro Alonso, Corneliu Porumboiu, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan (to name three heavy hitters of the past decade) have familiarized audiences with a style based on long, static takes, minimal dialogue, and inexpressive performances. One crucial element distinguishing Tsai's movies from theirs is the influence of silent comedy; Lee Kang-sheng, who's appeared in all of Tsai's features, registers as a Keaton-like presence, comically underreacting to everything from lost love to apocalyptic disaster. Much of the dramatic tension in Tsai's films results from this friction between Lee's comic stoicism and the melancholy world he inhabits.

Tension is a constant in Tsai's movies, even when little is happening onscreen. (Much recent "slow cinema," by contrast, can feel dramatically inert.) This may owe something to the writer-director's theatrical background: Tsai staged a number of plays in Taipei before trying his hand at cinema, and his rigidly defined frames recall theatrical playing spaces. As in Samuel Beckett's work, the sense of confinement makes each movement and line of dialogue feel significant. This confinement can be literal but also metaphorical—his characters tend to be alienated from each other and even from their own desires. Stray Dogs represents a step forward for Tsai in that the alienation it portrays is not merely emotional; the main characters are a homeless family living in an abandoned building on the outskirts of Taipei. Tsai has said that Dogs may be his last film; that would be a shame, as it suggests a new chapter in his career. It screens Friday, October 11, at 8:30 PM, and Sunday, October 13, at 12:30 PM.

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