Almendras’ To Kill a Man and Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs: On alienation and dignity – two men’s journey towards extreme loneliness.
I started my final day of the festival with Alejandro Fernández Almendras’ To Kill a Man, of which I confess, despite all festivals’ awards (Rotterdam, Sundance, Fribourg, IndieLisboa) it has been harvesting throughout the year’s first semester, I didn’t have those much expectations. Violence and revenge in South American cities it’s the kind of summarised synopsis I usually avoid due to highly clichéd copycats that followed hits like Amores Perros.
Almendras’ film starts with a shot of a man, Jorge the protagonist (excellent Daniel Candia) alone in a forest, cutting trees. He finishes his work and sits; he opens a small case which contains his diabetes paraphernalia and shoots himself with insulin. These opening sequences were just enough to immediately destroy my conjectured ideas and rearrange my expectations; not only they are beautifully shot – exquisite light and simple but clear composition – as they also contain the key elements to understand the character and foresee the events. From this point on, the director manages to avoid the trap of reductive allegorical tales instead creating a believable and compelling character capable of disseminating a sense of reality – build on details and emotional insight rather than shaky cameras and grim colours – to other characters and all the events they get involved into.
To Kill a Man is not a tale of violence and revenge on South American societies in general or even in the Chilean one – how genius was the decision to substitute the usual big metropolis by a small coastal town, place of breathtaking landscapes. It is a tale of violence and revenge in Jorge’s life therefore universal and, most of all, the portrait of a man in a particular situation. Jorge is, since the moment we are introduced to him, a lonely man; what those first shots in the forest show us is an utterly disconnected man – physically isolated and emotionally lethargic – defined more by its job and disease than by its family or neighbourhood. The first instance of violence inflicted on him is connected to the disease and the consequential act of violence he perpetrates is connected to (the place) of his job – not exactly as a lumberjack more as a caretaker of a luxurious coastal condo still in development. There is the place of horror, beauty and also of emotion, so touchingly expressed in the superb scene of Jorge going back for the corpse and putting the shoe back on his feet. There is the environmental counterpart for his daily one, also the place of dream and power; of wholeness. Everything in between is the gloomy and dangerous neighbourhood, routinely familial relations, harassment and lots of tv. Everything in between are further steps to total isolation and detachment until that burst of emotion arises; all that have been suppressed but still not extinct.
Tsai Ming-liang’s latest (and who knows – last?) feature Stray Dogs, was my most awaited film of the festival. I think of his work as absolutely essential to understand a very particular moment of time – the pre and post millennium tension he so brilliantly captured – and, consequently, our present times which are, naturally, a very direct follow-up to that period. How the particular elements of his universe look and adapt to the current moment (something already portrayed in the previous I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone) was something that I was obviously very curious to see, moreover due to the return to Taipei and the focus on homelessness, in another considerable blow for the Lee Kang-cheng character’s sense of existence and dignity. He is now the father of a boy and a girl, making little money enough for them to have a meal per day while the children drift in search of food samples in huge supermarkets, all coming together at night in an improvised room made at what seems to be an out of use locker or small warehouse.
As always, a contemplative experience, as hypnotic as emotional, Stray Dogs is also a puzzling journey, occasionally waking you up from a trance-like state to sudden shifts of reality along the way; which is natural, Stray Dogs is inevitably transfigured as a fairy tale, a virtual one born out of despair and unbearable pain, out of paralysing desolation and abandonment. As if the only way to cope with it, from some point on, was to transform or rearrange the reality as a succession of impossible solutions. Among harsh scenes of resistance to natural and artificial phenomena and mundane search for food, natural elements are depicted in a slightly fantastical light – the children in the giant forest resembling Hansel and Gretel as well as tons of other children tales; the quietly idealised walk on the beach; the boat hidden on the tall grass – or even turned into fantasy by the character themselves as in the scene when the kids turn a cabbage into a head putting it to sleep with them. These are the first hints of fantasy and delusion in a film that progressively deals with the misery either using those elements to maintain the impossible balance of normality with the most bleak prospects or zooming the spectator into absolute emotion – the unbelievably moving moment with Lee Kang-sheng singing while being a statue against the wind, the rain, the car noises.
Rain always falls like crazy in most Tsai Ming-liang’s films (beautiful adaptation of natural/symbolic element, in the latter I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, from rain to smoke) this one not being an exception. What is extraordinary in Stray Dogs is the ostensive use of colourful plastic capes when usually his characters stand (or lay, or float) bare just soaking it; now they use protection, a device that is as much desperately evoking the colourful joy of a musical as is, stripped down all poetics, a standardising bin bag. Maybe this time the rain is just too harsh to face without an armour or the capes are essential for people with least to no home, but my bets are – in a very Tsai Ming-liang light – that they are mostly preventing people from regenerating, as if that was not a possibility anymore. All transformation or regeneration, in characters or storyline, is from now on – being “now” the moment when, in the heavy rain, on the river and all dressed in plastics, the supermarket lady who is suddenly a protective reflection of Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter (the pinnacle of twisted fairy tales) kidnaps the kids – only achievable through fantasy or dream. And even in dreams, heaven (nature, life, organic matter, silence) is still just a painting on an abandoned building’s wall and the chance for love is illusion.
Here we arrive to the last scene. The father follows the new woman – protective and stable one, subliming the previous deserting and kidnapping two – through the same path, of the enormous ruined building, we’ve been before in the second woman’s company. The tour lost now the tense but seductive lynchian ambiance it had the first time we were there, it’s now just a trail to deception, to the deception of reality. We know already what she will show to him (the image on the wall) and that this is the end but the elliptical is still superbly enhanced by the fourteen minutes long shot of them (him behind her) holding the image with their look to the off screen picture on the wall, till he breaks in movement towards her and she departs; the picture is of a river and a landscape in black and white, the poorest paradise replacement and even though enough for him to hope till the last second. A cabbage had, in a heartbreaking pivotal scene, a similar value, even though a more effective use.
In a final shot we see him, now from a distance, and the picture he is observing, in what I feel as the only flaw in such pristine film. There is an obvious no need for further disclosure of what they were watching and I also felt that a broader look on the situation weakens the previous shot, to say the least. It feels overly extended even though it gives you one more action to be taken in consideration: at the end he leaves the room.