Signs of the times: Stray Dogs

05 December 2013

In response to what might be Tsai Ming-Liang's final film...

The following was written in response to David Cairns' fourth annual Late Show blogathon on Shadowplay, which runs December 1-7, and whose running theme is filmmakers' late or final works.
Later this month, it’ll be a year since I left my job as a bar and nightclub promoter. Returning home in 2009 after graduating from a bachelor’s degree, I resumed the job I’d had in the summer prior to moving away. It was to be what people refer to as a stopgap: something with which to pass time and make money while deciding my next step. Three years passed before enough seemed enough. Just before the end of 2012, I actively entered that grim wilderness of unemployment – or more specifically, a continuation and increase of unpaid writing – in pursuit of what has only recently turned into paid opinionship as a film critic.

Bar and nightclub promotion is an easy job. There are very few responsibilities, there are no new skills to learn. There is little stress. You don’t take the work home with you. Though the hours are unsociable, there aren’t many of them: over the course of a week, you find yourself with ample time for leisurely pursuits. Since much of my own time outside of the job was taken up by a master’s degree as well as watching, making and writing about films, the chief merit of such work might be how conducive it is to rumination; whenever I came to put pen to paper, I found I’d had sufficient opportunity to mentally draft whatever piece I was writing on.

But it’s a lousy job too. Through rain and snow, frost and sleet, you’re expected to stand there with the same enthusiasm for life and the cheap alcohol you’re promoting as you might when the sun is shining and the heat is up. Standing outside at two in the morning watching your own breath billow into the night might have a certain charm on the run-up to Christmas, but when you find yourself doing it every other evening of a long January with no reprieve from terrible weather, life looks a whole lot grimmer.

And the weather’s not the worst of it. Handing out flyers – ones that objectify and sexualise women, and whose sole purpose is to encourage people to intoxicate away the stresses of everyday life – I was ignored, mocked, cursed at and spat at. People snatched the flyer out of my hand only to throw it in my face, or else they cut my promotional shtick short by screaming in my face then laughing with their pals. The customer is right, always. Which isn’t to say I didn’t (want to) lash back.

When not handing out flyers, I held a sign. Holding a sign, I was dragged this way in the wind and pushed that way in the wind, trying desperately to retain balance and dignity as one drunken customer after another asked me if I was getting paid to hold it. Whatever professionalism holding a sign might have was repeatedly tested, as one lad after another gave the sign a good hard smack, knocking me and shocking me and making me look and feel like some absurd Sisyphean fool. I was full-on rugby-tackled once, by someone on a stag do; I had my personal space invaded often; I was threatened and snarled at by a prominent English Defence League racist after sticking up for a colleague he’d told to move on.

Perhaps the worst thing, though, is how outright fucking stagnant the job is. Physically and socially, human billboard work is dead, inert. Your immediate task is to stand still; there is little prospect of progress – the sideways move to indoor work in the bar itself notwithstanding. The capacity to ruminate, as mentioned above, is double-edged indeed. While on the one hand the job gave me time in which to weigh my career options, on the other it also allowed me to stew in the misery of my own predicament. Talk about dead labour: the job simply doesn’t contribute to one’s CV – that sheet of paper one is taught to gild and cherish from the age of 16 by elders whose sad, defeated eyes seem in retrospect to have thoroughly contradicted their hollow words of wisdom.

In fact, promotions work doesn’t seem to be contributing to anything but its own perpetuation. If the city’s busy, the venue you promote is busy. If the city’s quiet, there’s nobody out there from whom to conjure custom. Some employers – as was luckily the case with mine – know this. Others don’t – or else they ignore the common sense that would otherwise make them sympathetic human beings. Either way, you know and they know it’s the shittiest place to be. At once self-vindicating and totally superfluous, the human billboard is the perfect advertisement for and symptom of a system built upon profit. It’s an embodiment of capitalism itself.

With what is apparently his final film, Tsai Ming-Liang has nailed the anger, resentment, resignation, guilt and absolute embarrassment that define such work. Stray Dogs (Jiao you) is a monument to life on the margins: a menial job whose daily wage, paid in cash, is barely enough to keep a man and his two children afloat. Played by Tsai’s regular performer Lee Kang-Sheng, the human billboard at the centre of Stray Dogs has it worse than I ever did: he doesn’t live with his kind and understanding parents but is in fact a parent himself, living out a miserable existence with a son (Lee Yi-Cheng) and a daughter (Lee Yi-Chieh), both of whom wile away their days in a supermarket while their father stands at an urban crossroads enduring ceaseless rain and wind.

Lee’s billboards promote property. One day, he makes his way to one of the houses he has been advertising. Forcing his way in, he enters a hall of mirrors, designed to reflect not only the magnificently modern architecture of the house but also their own reflection – a fitting symbol for the exponential concentration of wealth from which Lee is excluded. Indeed, in a sprawling Taiwan that is building upwards in order to accommodate burgeoning enterprise and the faceless, geometric office spaces required of it, Lee trudges through mud on his way home – home being a meagre shack adjoining the same public urinals in which he and his children meticulously clean themselves as part of their ongoing retreat ahead of looming despair.

Marx said the strength of any economic system might be measured by the ease with which its ruling classes are able to recruit from its working classes in order to further their own agenda. Here, Tsai presents us a father of two who is employed to advertise the very thing denied him: property. The bitter irony of capitalism – to serve and protect the interests not of the marginalised many from whose labour all capital is drawn, but of the propertied few who reap the merits – finds expression in the image of a broken patriarchy.

Lee knows this. As he stands there in his yellow cagoule, with the elements making a standing mockery of him, he stews in his own inescapable quandary. A single father who is unable to fulfil the one familial function required of him, he drinks his way into nightly stupors, in which reality and dreams may merge. Does he drink in response to his own impoverishment, or is his dispossession a result of such alcoholism? It doesn’t seem to matter, of course: alcoholism is not a moral malaise but a socially conditioned one. Compounding matters is the seeming inescapability of such a plight. In making money by advertising living spaces he himself cannot afford, Lee is contributing to the very system that has dispossessed him.

These days, we are all stray dogs.