Goodbye, Dragon Inn

Asian Art House Offering Studiously Contemplates Its Own Navel

Devin D. O'Leary
4 min read
Surviving Christmas wasn’t any more popular in Asia.
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While movies about the art of moviemaking are fairly common (just look at this year's The Aviator), movies about the art of watching movies are fairly rare. Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso is pretty much the capstone of this largely untenanted genre. A nostalgic portrait of growing up in a movie theater and loving cinema in its purest form, Cinema Paradiso examines what it's like to be a viewer, a passive participant captured by the flickering magic of a movie projector.

Malaysian-born filmmaker Ming-Liang Tsai (Vive L'Amour, What Time is it Over There?) slips into this self-reflexive cinematic world alongside Cinema Paradiso with his entropic ode to the movie theater, Goodbye, Dragon Inn.

In a run-down movie house in Taipei, Taiwan, the credits for King Hu's 1966 martial arts classic, Dragon Inn, are unspooling on screen. A handful of patrons dot the seats of the theater while rain pounds the streets outside. The ticket girl sits in her lonely booth. The projectionist is AWOL. A young hustler cruises the aisles looking for a little action. That's about it for the plot of Goodbye, Dragon Inn.

A formal, contemplative and very slow study of time and place, Ming-Liang's film is certainly not for impatient tastes. Though it centers on a fairly typical Chinese film (Dragon Inn runs in the background of nearly every scene), Goodbye is far more Japanese in its sensibilities. Those few film lovers who have seen the works of Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story, Floating Weeds, Autumn Afternoon) will see some of the Japanese master's austere style in Ming-Liang's minimalist snapshot.

Glacial in its pacing and aching in its silence (the first line of dialogue doesn't arrive until 45 minutes into the film), Goodbye Dragon Inn would seem like an exhaustive and exacting tribute to the fading movie palace.

I can't say for sure that's what Ming-Liang has in mind, however. The film is so joyless and tightlipped, it's hard to tell if the filmmaker has any particular feelings of moviegoing nostalgia at all. No one in the film expresses any real interest in watching Dragon Inn. The ticket girl, a lonely clubfooted gal, seems to be in love with the projectionist, but she's too shy to talk to him. The hustler looks for a little action with little success. The most significant participants here seem to be two elderly men in the balcony who happen to be Shih Chun and Miao Tien, the actual stars of Dragon Inn (a subtlety that will be lost on Western audiences). For the most part, we simply watch as the patrons watch, silently, occasionally getting up to switch seats.

As they wander the moldering hallways, stumble through claustrophobic storerooms and crowd into aging restrooms, you have to wonder if these people are trapped in some sort of personal Purgatory. Through it all, Ming-Liang displays the patience of a saint or a coma victim. Dialogue remains unspoken, shots are static and linger for minutes on end. (There's a urinal sequence that must clock in as the longest on record.) Occasionally, the ticket girl gets up to look for the projectionist, the clip-clop of her lame foot echoing through the empty hallways like some ominous clock.

There is a sense that the theater (and, by extension, the art form of film itself) is dying. The film's press kit implies that this is the last night of the theater's operation, although that fact remains unspoken in the film itself. Still, it's hard to get worked up over this particular death. Ming-Liang isn't so much mourning the passing, as pointing out the unfortunate stain on the carpet left by the corpse. Even the flash and color of King Hu's classic sword opera can't breathe life into this decaying corpse of a theater. Movies are dead and all that remain are ghosts.

Still, the film is original and elegant and gives viewers plenty of peace and quiet in which to contemplate the co-option of cinema by modern-day multiplexes and soulless strip malls.

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