Clicking and Streaming: The late capitalist ennui of 'Stray Dogs' and Gregg Araki's reconfiguring of teenage angst in 'White Bird In a Blizzard'
By By Adam Katzman and Sean McTiernan
Mar 13, 2015 at 5:51 PM
"Stray Dogs" Directed by Tsai Ming-Liang Currently available on Blu-ray and streaming on Netflix
"Stray Dogs," Tsai Ming-Liang's first film on Blu-ray and the only one streaming on Netflix, is composed of a series of nearly static shots hypnotically painting the resourceful routines of a homeless family trying to keep it together on the outskirts of Taiwan. At first, it might give off the impression that nothing much is happening, but Ming-Liang's films create a dialogue on diasporic drift and late capitalist ennui in a country attempting to establish a stable national identity in the wake of political repression (be it Chinese, Japanese, or American) and forced migratory patterns. As such, his cinema exists in an interzone, and a tight familial unit dwelling in the shadows of a bustling metropolis is a layered reflection on that. One of the film's largest monologues is a recitation of a poem by Ming-Liang regular Lee Keng-Sheng, here the patriarch, ironically holding a real-estate sign to the indifference of rainy day traffic: "I launch a shrill cry at the heavens/ My valiant heart loses hope/ My exploits are naught but mud and dust/ O vainglorious pain/ The shame of defeat is not yet washed away."
While seemingly a meditation on personal turmoil, it's also a 12th-century dynasty song, and takes the family's plight into the metaphoric realm of, say, Taiwan's uneasy historical relationship with China. A scene in which Keng-Sheng mournfully tears a cabbage apart with his mouth confused the shit out of some film critics. The New York Times' Stephen Holden called it a lesser variation on the radish scene in "Gone with the Wind," because here there's less "gumption" and more "lachrymose self-pity," which makes sense because, you know, we're not dealing with a plucky plantation owner. Yet the poem also functions as a sort of Rorschach test potentially filling in backstory on the unit's matriarchal absence and the eventual unease over how a supermarket clerk (played by three different women), who roams at night feeding the literal stray dogs dwelling in the same habitat as our protagonists, eventually steps in and fills the role. The film's second half slips into the more overtly surreal, with the decayed interiors of their abandoned dwelling given nightmarish new layouts that share kinship with "The Babadook," and makes clearer the psychic struggle with spatial dislocation underneath the physical one. (Adam Katzman)
"White Bird in A Blizzard" Directed by Gregg Araki Currently streaming via Netflix
An elliptical, empathetic film about adolescence built around an absence, metaphorical and literal, "White Bird in A Blizzard" boasts a kind of antiseptic beauty and nostalgia that's easily mistaken for coldness, in a style heavily reminiscent of the '90s movies of Atom Egoyan, like "The Sweet Hereafter," or Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm." In 1988, when Kat (Shailene Woodley) was 17, her mother (Eva Green) disappeared with no warning. Three years later, while on a break from college, she begins to question the story she has been telling herself about her mother's disappearance and what her Dad (Chris Meloni), her ex-boyfriend (Shiloh Fernandez), and even her friends have given up trying to tell her.
"White Bird In A Blizzard" is set in the late '80s/early '90s but exists in a far more general nostalgic haze. What holds Eva Green's '50s housewife, Fernandez's benevolent '90s grunge rocker, and Thomas Jane's stoic '70s Tom-Of-Finland cop investigating the disappearance of Kat's mom in the same universe is their unwillingness to slide comfortably into their assigned roles. And the more time Kat, whose perspective warps the reality of the movie, spends with each character as she navigates director Gregg Araki's signature milieu of gossip, wit, and welcomely nonchalant fucking, she realizes there is more to know about them, which makes her realize all that she has been missing.
Araki makes it clear that everything is felt ferociously by teenagers, especially uncertainty. Every character encountered in "White Bird In A Blizzard" is afforded deep understanding, often recalling the brutal sympathy John Waters regularly smuggles in under his Grand Guignol offensiveness. Araki's known for transgressive works like "Doom Generation," "Mysterious Skin," and "Kaboom," and explosive endings which underline aggressively what has come before, so "White Bird In A Blizzard" could feel like a departure. But it's better seen as the final, heartbreaking step in a series of movies that detail a specific tragedy of adolescence in the name of portraying a universal one: the realization while you assume you're the star of your own movie and everyone else is just anonymous bit players, everyone else might be thinking the same thing. (Sean McTiernan)