Hsiao Kang is a good for nothing who holds signboards for a living. The only people in his life are his two children. The whole city has become a dumping ground for stray dogs and the river is far, far away. Then, one stormy night, he decides to take his children on a sailing trip.
In Stray Dogs, Tsai Ming Liang’s latest masterpiece, serves as a witness of what the modernization brought to Taiwan. According to the director, the idea of making this film came from years witnessing the evolution of the human billboard industry. “Ten years ago, I saw a man on the streets of Taipei, holding up a sign to advertise tour packages. I was astonished by the sight and filled with questions as I observed him at the traffic light. How long was he going to stand there? Will he be ashamed if friends and relatives see him?”, he says.
For the past years, millions of people in Taiwan have lost their jobs and started working as human billboards. Tsai Ming Liang started to research more about the working conditions of these people that work 8 hours per day while getting a ten-minute break to rest every hour standing. These families sometimes are homeless and don’t get enough money to eat on a daily basis.
“I have seen some of them muttering to themselves, but I could never make out what they were saying”, he admits. In the film, Hsiao Kang sings "Man Jiang Hong" (A River Filled with Red), a patriotic poem written by the Song Dynasty general, Yue Fei, who defended his country against the invasion of the Jin Tribe. The poem expresses Yue Fei's loyalty towards his country and his frustrations at being unable to accomplish his mission. “Anyone above the age of forty in Taiwan would be familiar with this. I actually heard Hsiao Kang sing it once before”, the director admits.
We follow a man's mental and emotional despairs, which seem deeper and scarier as he relies on alcohol that enables him to being a presence in the lives of his children. In order to portray the suffering and hopelessness that poverty brings, Tsai uses lengthy and grainy shots in this 2-hour exercise of physical and emotional devastation.
With a heart-wrenching final 20 minutes of film where we observe the two main actors emotionally connect with each other, there's a definite sense in which Tsai is asking what it means to live and survive with others. Breathing serves as the heartbeat, the life pulse, which does not always indicate what it is to be alive.