Blu Review: ‘Goodbye, Dragon Inn’ (2003) dir. Tsai Ming-liang (Second Run)

by Ruairí McCann

In a Taipei caught under a thick canopy of rain, an old late night movie theatre serves as a symbolic shelter. It is the last playing ground for a vibrant popular cinema, but also its mausoleum. A net open to catch the lovelorn and lonely, a salve and conduit for their stifled fantasies. Though not for much longer, as this picture palace is on the eve of being mothballed. Its shuttering marked by one last screening of the King Hu wuxia classic Dragon Inn (1967). As the movie plays, three narrative strands play out and coast each other.

A young woman, played by Chen Shiang-chyi with a meekness signaled by her floor-scraping skirt and smothering pullover and expressed in a hangdog mien, makes her rounds as the sole ticketer-cum-caretaker. She manages this despite a laborious limp and her unrequited pining after the elusive projectionist (Lee Kang-sheng). Meanwhile, in the main auditorium itself, a young Japanese tourist (Kiyonobu Mitamura) flocks from seat to seat, and then from there to the toilets. Like other men, he is cruising, and yet, he can’t find whatever he is looking for. A paralysis strikes these men, just before they can score. Is this strange case of mass frigidity the product of a widespread anhedonia? Or maybe its ghosts. Or both.

Oblivious to all of this and everything apart from the movie, are a couple of familiar, venerable faces. They belong to Shih Chun and Miao Tien, playing themselves, watching their past selves, as they both starred in Dragon Inn. For Shih, it was his debut as a leading man and the first of several collaborations with Hu. For Miao, a key member of Tsai’s troupe, it was also an important early role, while Goodbye Dragon Inn would be his very last, for he passed, two years later, in 2005. They provide the most direct and wistful connection, between this film and the one it contains, though the ticket woman finds her way in there too. In one scene, she stands behind the screen, staring up as a 40-foot-tall Feng Hsu, dodges and darts about, as mobile as she, the ticket-woman, will only ever be in her dreams. Otherwise, Dragon Inn is a near omnipresence more often heard than seen; its potently rising and flamboyant Beijing Opera soundtrack blaring out or else leaking through the sound proofing, wrapping itself around much of the film and adding a heightened quality to these characters’ stasis and wanderings.

In an interview conducted for this new and beautifully put together Second Run set, Tsai Ming-liang marks this film as a turning point in his art. This statement could be traced, most immediately, to its camera style and pace. The shots are stationary and long to an extent that was new to his work. This was also his most contained setting, and it, the King Hu film and two of its stars, all together, bring a documentary aspect that hints at a path of exploration that he would further trod in his later career.

This change and the film in general, like much in life, was triggered by chance. The Fu Ho Theatre, a second run cinema in Taipei, landed in Tsai’s lap after he discovered and used it for a scene in his previous feature, What Time Is It There? (2001). Influenced by the owner’s needling for the two of them to partner up and nostalgia for the movie haunts of his childhood in Kuching, Tsai rented the venue for six months and then proceeded to develop this film. What started out as an idea for short, stretched to one mid-length half of a portmanteau and, finally, to a standalone feature.

The slower style could be put down to Tsai finding a space in which he wants to luxuriate and document, in both its full glory and its illustrious fade. He introduces the theatre’s innards with a scene out of context. The auditorium at full house, shot from multiple encompassing and embiggening wide angles, and then from a more occluded, voyeur’s point of view, where it is reduced to a tantalizing sliver, rippling between two curtains. This sequence finds its rhyme near the very end, with one of the longest takes. A shot of the auditorium, once the film is over, the lights have gone up and what few patrons there were left, have all vamoosed. Tsai holds on it, while it is being cleaned and then past that, for a couple more minutes, even though there is no human presence left to glom onto. This lingering is the sense of longing that has four-walled this theatre and film, exhibited on the level of artist and canvas. Tsai does not want to say goodbye.

The cinema is not just an object of Tsai’s love and his attention as a social cartographer, but as an active creative, even expressionistic, element. For Tsai also uses the location expressively, with strikingly and intricately arranged uses of deep space, and framing which illuminates both the beauty and the Stygian qualities of this dank and storied concrete structure.

In the sequence where the ticket woman has to reach the theatre’s summit, the projectionist booth, Tsai shoots the journey in a way that turns the dimensions, never ending and vertical. By turning it into a kind of borderline insurmountable, spiral staircase, Tsai emphasizes the sheer practical difficulty of this woman’s job and, through contrast, the dearth of an object for her toil and affection. For the Japanese tourist, his desire finds him in even stranger, more abstract spaces. Within the auditorium, he and others move from seat to seat in striking group configurations, that evoke the way this space is actually navigated but also the abstraction of modern dance. Here there is also a Samuel Beckett comparison that actually fits, for his scenes are reminiscent of the expressive, through rigorous control, movements of the artist’s short plays Footfalls (1975) and Come and Go (1965),and his avant-garde television work, Quad (1981).

It is halfway through the film, in such an extra-real and organized space; a series of labyrinthine corridors, cluttered with cardboard and traversed by seeking somnambulists, that we hear the first line of dialogue. A claim that ghosts are present and rife, that could be taken literally, as the teasing out a supernatural element, but also, more allusively, a neat yet expansive summation of the theatre as a teeming, overlapping den of spirits. The spirit of cinema as a communal experience and site of individual intimacy. An art form that was and is, in Tsai’s hands and others, both imaginative but rooted, steadfast, in the corporeal.

Click here to purchase the DVD or Blu-ray from Second Run.

Special Features:
Presented from the director-approved HD transfer of the new 4K restoration of the film.
• A new and exclusive filmed interview with director Tsai Ming-Liang.
• Madam Butterfly (2009, 36 mins): world home-video premiere of Tsai Ming-Liang’s remarkable modern-day short film interpretation of the classic story.
• 24-page booklet featuring new essays by curator and critic Tony Rayns, plus a personal appreciation by filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
• New and improved English subtitle translation.
• Original soundtrack 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 2.0 Stereo LPCM
• World premiere on Blu-ray.
• Region free Blu-ray (A/B/C) and DVD (‘0’) editions.

Ruairí McCann is a graduate of English Literature with Film Studies (BA) from University College Dublin and Film Studies (MA) from Queen’s University Belfast. He sits on the board of the Silgo Film Society and has written for Photogénie, Electric Ghost Magazine and Little White Lies.

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