Lee Kang-sheng, a favorite actor of director Tsai Ming-liang, returns in Goodbye, Dragon Inn, a change of pace of sorts for Tsai.
Elegy to the Movie House
Tsai Ming-liangs visually arresting film is a tribute to his austere style
By STEVE ERICKSON
Only a middle-aged man could have made Goodbye, Dragon Inn. Most viewers under 35, who grew up watching movies on video, dont share its nostalgia for the days when filmgoing involved an unpredictable interaction with other people, not just consumption.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn is set on a rainy night in Taipei, during the Fu-Ho movie theaters final day of business and over the course of one screening of King Hus martial arts classic Dragon Inn. The screening draws a very small audience, who arent exactly hypnotized by the film. They get up to smoke, wander around, go to the bathroom and cruise.
For a New Yorker, Goodbye, Dragon Inn recalls pre-gentrification Times Square theaters, as well as the now-defunct Chinatown circuit. For a film that often seems to be about nothing, Goodbye, Dragon Inn packs a real wallop.
Here, Tsai Ming-Liang pares his austere style down to the bonelong takes and urban loneliness. Theres almost no dialogue or camera movement. Fortunately, Tsai has the eye of a painter and the ear of a musician. Hes sensitive to the variations of sound recorded off a movie screen and the percussive patter of rain outside the theater. Goodbye, Dragon Inn is stripped-down, yet richly sensual. Like the late French master Robert Bresson, Tsai is extremely attentive to the material worlds details. He often lets the camera linger for 15 or 20 seconds after a person has left the frame. Theres something beautiful to look at and interesting to listen to in every shot.
Tsai has been making film variations on the same theme throughout his career. Thats starting to change. In Goodbye, Dragon Inn, he uses his favorite actor, Lee Kang-sheng, once again, but Lees character is no longer part of a nuclear family. Tsais work might be unbearably bleak if it werent so funny, juxtaposing alienation and sexual frustration with slapstick and dry wit.
That sense of humor is mostly missing in Goodbye, Dragon Inn, although the film isnt any more depressing for its absence. The playfulness that led him to make a sci-fi musical and end What Time Is It There? with a dead characters resurrection is still present, but its subsumed into the general ambiance. Like Wong Kar-wais films, Goodbye, Dragon Inn is filled with a diffuse eroticismTsai brings out the beauty in everything in his cameras path.
Some movies dont necessarily gain anything from being seen on the big screen. The reflexive violence of David Cronenbergs Videodrome or Michael Hanekes Funny Games may hit home harder on the couch than in the theater, while Kiyoshi Kurosawas Pulse, in which ghosts launch themselves off the Internet in order to destroy the world, might benefit from being downloaded online and viewed on a computer monitor.
But the virtues of Goodbye, Dragon Inn would be obliterated on video. The small screen amplifies the relative importance of dialogue and actingaspects of filmmaking which this film has little interest in pursuingand reduces that of visual style. As Andy Warhols early films showed, celluloid can lend a monumentality to almost any subject. The flicker of light on a sign or womans face can be as much of an event as a tracking shot or shock cut. The beauty of Goodbye, Dragon Inn lies in taking apparent stasis and blowing it up larger than life.
Cinema isnt dying, but the walls between film, video, TV, video games and the Internet are dissolving faster than most directors can keep pace with. In terms of focus, color reproduction and depth of field, video is still a limited medium, although it may look as good as 35mm film ten or 15 years from now. Without exactly being an anti-video manifesto, Goodbye, Dragon Inn documents the death throes of a certain kind of cinema. The heyday of films like Dragon Inn has passed, despite the recent surprise success of Zhang Yimous Hero. At best, theyre promoted from the realm of pop culture as artworks worthy of a museum setting; at worst, theyre simply ignored. However, Goodbye, Dragon Inn is as much about the movie theateras a physical and social spaceas about film itself. Its a powerful elegy for a kind of filmgoing that no longer exists. Heres hoping the rows of Cinema Village are more crowded than those of the Fu-Ho.