Forget the adieus—Judge Jesse Ataide says that art film lovers should give a big hello to Tsai Ming-Liang's latest film.
The sound of silence.
It's amazing how many plot lines acclaimed director Tsai Ming-liang weaves into this melancholy cinematic lament: An unrequited love story between a ticket clerk and projectionist, a sad reunion of two former film stars, an awkward attempt at an anonymous gay encounter, a possible brush with the supernatural, and an unspectacular closure to an entire movie-watching era.
Let down your concentration for a moment, however, and you may never realize it.
Facts of the Case
On a dark, anonymous night, as the rain pours outside, a tiny crowd assembles in the cavernous Fu-Ho Grand Theatre, an ancient Taipei movie palace screening the martial arts epic Dragon Inn before closing its doors forever. Among the crowd is a young Japanese tourist (Kiyonobu Mitamura) who's interested in things other than the film, Shih Chun and Tien Miao as the two aging stars of Dragon Inn who come to witness the images of their youth flash by on the big screen for the last time, and a peanut-chomping woman (Kuei-Mei Yang, Eat Drink Man Woman) whose mind seems to be far away from the film she has paid to see.
Meanwhile, a lonely ticket clerk (Shiang-chyi Chen, What Time is it There?) with a clubbed foot clomps around in the shadowy halls and passageways of the theatre, cleaning and performing the various tasks her job entails. Inside the sweltering projection box, the projectionist (Kang-sheng Lee, What Time is it There?) winds the reels for one last time.
Amidst the messy tangents of human drama, Dragon Inn plays on, serving as the subtle link that connects all of the disparate characters in a single communal cinematic moment.
As our own Judge Treadway demonstrated in his review of The River (1997), Tsai's films are difficult and tremendously polarizing. A critics' darling, numerous professional critics have discovered sublimity in his slow-paced meditations on human interaction and disconnectedness. Audience reaction, on the other hand, is much more varied, more often than not leaning towards the negative. It is true that his films are deliberate and uncompromising. With numerous comparisons to Antonioni (L'Avventura), Resnais (Hiroshima mon amour), Bresson (Au hasard Balthazar), and Bergman (Persona), Tsai's cinematic vision seems more akin to the heady, experimental heyday of European Art Cinema in the 1960s than contemporary world cinema. And it seems that several decades later, audiences still haven't learned to fully appreciate this brand of wildly creative but fiercely obstinate approach to filmmaking.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn is first and foremost a film about the cinematic experience, and as it makes a very pointed statement regarding the collective experience cinema offers, it also seems to be making an equally penetrating comment on the current state of movie watching. In the opening shots of the film, the Kung-Ho Grand Theater is filled to capacity, with countless patrons staring at the movie screen in rapt attention. With a single cut the film fast-forwards to the present day. Though the film has remained the same, the audience has not. Only several isolated individuals remain from that expansive audience—the theater has been rendered obsolete; out-of-fashion. With the rise of home video and access to more movies than an individual could possibly watch in a single lifetime, film is no longer a shared community experience, but rather an intensely subjective occurrence, and so the last relics of that vastly different cinematic mindset naturally fades away. Goodbye, Dragon Inn mourns that loss.
In Tsai's film, the theater has become the darkened dwelling place of misfits, social outcasts, and the lonely. But even though the isolation of the various characters is highlighted by the scores of empty seats that separate them, the shadows also seems to offer an environment in which they muster the courage to try and make some kind of human connection. In the case of the Japanese tourist, the attempt is sexual in nature; for the ticket clerk, it's a more subtle attempt to make herself noticed by her coworker. Both are painfully awkward in execution, and the connection isn't made.
But at the same time, connection is not depicted as an impossibility either. Though it is through bitter nostalgia, the two middle-aged stars of Dragon Inn do share a moment of mutual remembrance and past friendship once the film finishes. And ultimately, in the last sequences of the film, the intentions of the ticket clerk (signified through a sweet bun) are finally recognized by the projectionist, albeit in a very subtle way. It is in these moments that Tsai's humanist undertones shine through most vividly—though they are brief and barely noticeable, connections, however slight in nature, are ultimately made.
There has been much comment on the fact that Goodbye, Dragon Inn is a film almost completely lacking dialogue. The first words not coming from the soundtrack of the film playing in the theater occur nearly 40 minutes into the film—which is almost exactly the halfway point of the film's 83 minute running time. And yet sound is an essential element to Goodbye, Dragon Inn—the film's soundtrack echoing throughout the vast emptiness of the theater, the pouring rain slapping the roof and the pavement outside, and the constant beat of the ticket clerk's heavy, limping steps down endless gloomy corridors all create a haunting, reflective atmosphere. And yet, for all of the masterful use of sound and noise throughout the film, it is the silence that pierces; the empty spaces and words never uttered aloud that reverberate most strongly.
Visually, Tsai is just as conscientious of the visual style of Goodbye, Dragon Inn as he is of its use of sound. With this film, it could be said that Tsai takes the long take, his signature style, to its furthest extreme. Shot after shot lingers on long past its logical cut-off, depicting characters in static positions as if frozen within individual moments of time. With the exception of one dazzling sequence where the face of a female character in Dragon Inn is rapidly juxtaposed with the upturned face of the ticket clerk, who pauses for a moment behind the massive screen, calling Goodbye, Dragon Inn "deliberately paced" would be an understatement. And yet that is part of the hypnotic affect of the film—for a brief (or, if you're not enjoying the film, an endless) moment, Tsai seems to somehow elongate time, stretching it thin to reveal nuance, patterns, and meaning.
Even though Goodbye, Dragon Inn is presented in its original widescreen aspect ratio, for some reason it is not anamorphic. This means the picture is adequate, but certainly could have been better. Tsai does such a superb job with his muted color scheme of deep greens, blues, and grays that his film deserved an anamorphic transfer. Similarly, the Dolby 5.1 mix is "surround sound" in only the loosest sense of the term, and utilized only minimally. Optional English subtitles are provided.
Several extras are provided on this disc, including a trailer gallery and director filmography. The former is helpful in getting a sense of what Tsai's other films are like; the latter is as useless, as all such so-called "extras" are. The most important inclusion is the short film The Skywalk is Gone, an epilogue to Tsai's last feature film What Time is It There?. It stars Tsai regulars Kang-sheng Lee and Shiang-chyi Chen, both who star in Goodbye, Dragon Inn. It's an interesting, beautifully crafted 21-minute film that piques one's interest in What Time is It There? more than the trailer in the gallery does.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn is, quite frankly, a film that will appeal to a very small minority of even the most devoted of film buffs. It's a film that pushes the viewer to one extreme or the other: either complete absorption or utter boredom. The Last Picture Show this is not.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Wellspring Media
• Short Film "The Skywalk is Gone"
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