Goodbye Dragon Inn
English Title: Goodbye Dragon Inn
Country of Origin: China
Studio: Homegreen Films
Director: Tsai Ming-liang
Screenplay: Tsai Ming-liang
Cinematographer: Liao Pen-jung
Art Director: Lu Li-Chin
Editor: Chen Sheng-Chang
Runtime: 83 minutes
In a dilapidated movie theatre in Taipei, several characters gather to watch the martial arts film Dragon Gate Inn (King Hu, 1967) before the cinema closes down. The janitor, a clubfooted young woman, spends her time cleaning, eating and spying on the projectionist, to whom she leaves some food of hers; whilst a young male patron is constantly annoyed throughout the screening and finally sets off around the labyrinthine building, where he has a strange encounter with a Japanese man taking shelter from a rainstorm. Elsewhere, a grandfather and his grandson watch the film in wonder, and the old man also has a special meeting as he leaves the theatre. As the film closes, the janitor and projectionist make their preparations to leave the building one final time.
Several times in Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn, a shot taken from the outside of the dilapidated cinema that features as the film’s single location displays a poster for the Pang Brothers’ Hong Kong horror hit The Eye (2002). It is a strangely appropriate reference, given that film’s emphasis on privileged vision and the singular witnessing of ghosts, for Tsai’s picture too is concerned with ghosts and with specifically personal, subjective visions. In actual fact, although one scene features talk of hauntings in the old movie house, and there appear to be several spirits watching the film that is being shown for the final time (King Hu’s historical martial arts epic Dragon Gate Inn ), the true ghosts remain on the screen, the present/absent images of real people that play out their circumscribed story in a distinct yet coterminous realm (the fact that potentially one actor’s ghost seems to be viewing his work in the cinema is, in this regard, a wonderfully allusive and self-reflexive aside).
Goodbye Dragon Inn has also been favourably compared to films like Guiseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988) and Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971). However perhaps Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road (1976) offers a more apposite point of contrast, less in any concrete details of story or character than for the New German Cinema luminary’s nostalgic evocation of the lost days of small-scale exhibition. Tsai does not offer quite the same vision: the vein of magic realism mined by the director here, in addition to the broad comedic material he provides in the shape of a young male spectator who is continually distracted by the antics of those few patrons around him (a nod to the less than ideal communality of the theatrical experience), contravenes Wenders’ particular narrativity. Nonetheless, as with Kings of the Road, he is clearly interested in the pure magic of film viewing, the dazzling other-world that can shine in and illuminate even such drab surroundings as a Taipei cinema during a rainstorm (and in truth a golden-oldie tune over the end credits clearly introduces a note of nostalgia, something dear to Tsai who used this particular theatre because it reminded him of his childhood cinema-going).
Single locations are common in this director’s work, as are serious problems with monsoon weather and water leakage (as in Rebels of the Neon God  or The Hole ); but here there is a certain fondness for the dank, labyrinthine interior and the determined janitor who tirelessly maintains what she can of its upkeep. Tsai even uses the water to offer a diegetic soundtrack of rhythmic dripping to counterpoint his largely dialogue-free narrative and provide something like a metronome against which to measure the myriad offbeat characters and personal stories. The fact that his unkempt theatre represents a modern movie house, and an utterly quotidian interior space that resembles the dilapidated, even disused bowels of a factory, does not negate this import. Indeed, the space of the theatre seems to act as a catalyst to a drama as several characters are compelled to wander its domain, as though it had absorbed some of the screen’s narrative power and potential. Tsai’s typically de-dramatized, long take/long shot deadpan style, allows an extended and uncluttered temporality conducive to such drama, and although not the essence of King Hu or the beloved Chinese genre cinema of old, it is very much the essence of its director here, in what is arguably his masterpiece.
Author of this review: Adam Bingham