‘Goodbye, Dragon Inn’: The Final Image Present in Taipei
A sparse audience attends the final show in a cave-like film house. Tsai Ming-liang’s newly restored “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” from 2003 is a love letter to the cinema and also to the cinemas.
The film is set almost exclusively in the no-frills Fu-Ho Grand Theater in central Taipei. The Fu-Ho, which looks like it could hold a thousand people, is a dramatic space, but the space on screen that is projected onto King Hu’s 1967 wuxia classic “Dragon Inn” feels infinite.
“Dragon Inn” is a martial arts spectacle and a complicated chamber drama at the same time, and a landmark of Taiwanese cinema. Though it would be years before Hu’s film was shown beyond America’s Chinatown, the New York Times reported on its international success: “The popularity of the film, which shows performances that appear fantastic to Western viewers, has sparked a wave of action films. “Tsai would have been around 10 years old when Dragon Inn arrived in Taiwan. For him it’s not just a movie, it’s the movie.
The films are also the places where they live. A kind of simultaneous double calculation, “Goodbye, Dragon Inn”, is based on the interplay of the projected “Dragon Inn” and the life of the Fun Ho viewers. The guests eat, sleep, drive, hunt for fallen objects and go to the washroom.
The theater manager, a young woman with a pronounced limp, climbs up to the projection booth and into the basement to look for a persistent leak. (Heavy rain is one of Tsai’s hallmarks, as is the presence of Lee Kang-sheng, who turns out to be the protagonist at the end of the film.) These various activities make up a ballet of everyday life reminiscent of Jacques Tati’s subtle slapstick or Robert Wilson’s reminds glacier operas.
While “Dragon Inn” is very kinetic, Tsai’s camera almost never moves. His “rigorous minimalism expresses a sensibility that is both comically and sadly romantic,” wrote AO Scott in The Times when “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” was shown at the 2003 New York Film Festival. “It’s an action film that stands completely still.”
Most of the dialogue and music in Goodbye, Dragon Inn comes from Dragon Inn. And the film within the film is viewed from different angles, with its changing light patterns being thrown onto the faces of the audience. (At some point Tsai creates a montage in which the theater manager and the star of the “Dragon Inn”, Hsu Feng, appear to be exchanging glances.) “Did you know that this theater is haunted?” One audience asks half the other. The theater is haunted, both by the ghosts on screen and by the spectators in the seats, some of which are revealed in both films.
Tsai adds another disembodied voice for the credits. 1950s singer Yao Lee sings a wistful Chinese pop song about the present of the past. She, too, is the spirit of the film, a play-back singer who has been heard but not seen in countless films by Tsai’s youth and more recently in Rich Crazy Asians.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn
Available for streaming on Metrograph.com starting December 18th.