The poet and critic Parker Tyler once described the movie theater as the “psychoanalytic clinic of the average worker.” Tsai Ming-liang’s latest feature puts one such clinic under analysis. Goodbye Dragon Inn concerns the inner life of a poured-concrete cavern in the heart of Taipei, a shabby temple unspooling an old martial arts flick—namely King Hu’s 1966 Dragon Inn—to a handful of devotees.
Because the theater is about to shut down, there’s a superficial resemblance to the canned nostalgia of Cinema Paradiso. But Goodbye Dragon Inn, which was shown once at the 2003 New York Film Festival and again as part of BAM’s “Village Voice Best of 2003″ series, is far less sentimental and considerably funnier than the old Miramax pocket liner. And because Tsai is the director, Goodbye Dragon Inn is also a movie of elegant understatement and considerable formal intelligence.
In one sense, the movie is a superimposed double feature, or a sort of gallery installation, with Hu’s wildly kinetic movie collapsed into Tsai’s programmatically static one. (Writing in Cinema Scope, Chuck Stephens called this “the slowest swordplay film ever made.”) The action is entirely confined to the Fu-Ho theater and Hu’s classic runs throughout—if sometimes present only as overheard music or the whir of the projector. At times, the big screen (within the screen) opens a glorious chasm of deep space in the gloomy Fu-Ho bunker. More often, the screen is glimpsed through curtains or severely angled. Always, however, Dragon Inn provides Goodbye with a variety of shadows to contemplate—in some shots, the internal movie registers only as patterns of light shifting on the empty seats. Meanwhile, Tsai’s trademark monsoon allows for the contrapuntal pitter-patter of water leaking through the theater’s roof.
Tsai’s characters include a young woman with a severe limp who takes tickets at the box office and cleans up after the show, a little boy attending the movie with his nostalgic grandfather, and a lonely Japanese tourist, who alternates between watching the movie and hopefully cruising the largely empty theater. The movie-within-the-movie aside, the first line of dialogue occurs midway through: “Do you know this theater is haunted?” someone asks the Japanese tourist. Indeed it is. Poltergeists noisily gobble their sunflower seeds. A pair of feet suddenly materializes over the tourist’s shoulder. Two of Dragon Inn‘s actors, Miao Tien and Chun Shih, are in the audience watching their young selves on-screen. But Tsai is less concerned with nostalgia than a sense of cosmic ritual or what might be called the “historical uncanny.” (In this sense, Goodbye Dragon Inn is a version of Pat O’Neill’s Decay of Fiction or a minimalist cousin to Irma Vep.)
Goodbye Dragon Inn puts the history of popular cinema in Taiwan between brackets. Dragon Inn was the first movie Hu produced after breaking with the Hong Kong–based Shaw Brothers and relocating to Taiwan. Among the most influential martial arts films ever made—enriching the genre with a number of new tropes, including sword-wielding maidens and evil eunuchs—it also put Taiwan’s popular cinema on the international map. Goodbye consigns that popular cinema to the crypt even while receding further in time to evoke the increasingly archaic motion picture apparatus itself.
While Tsai’s long, static takes are basic Lumière, his narrative evokes the lost world of silent cinema. A prolonged gag is derived from a spectator’s efforts to retrieve her fallen shoe. A wordless scene in the men’s toilet is a small masterpiece of comic timing. The action is a dance of simple activities: The ticket taker eats her steamed bun and then makes an arduous journey from the box office, leg brace clanking, down an endless corridor and up the narrow stairs to the booth where she leaves a portion of her meal as an offering for the unseen projectionist.
Goodbye Dragon Inn has its metaphysical aspect—are the phantoms on the screen or in the audience; is cinema spiritual or material; does the projectionist really exist? It ends, more or less, with the man in the booth rewinding Dragon Inn. In a witty inside joke, he turns out to be Tsai’s axiomatic protagonist and alter ego, Lee Kang-sheng. He’s the prime mover and it’s his story after all.