Why I Love… #122: Goodbye, Dragon Inn

Year: 2003

Director: Tsai Ming-Liang

Stars: Chen Hsiang-Chyi, Kiyonobu Mitamura, Lee Kang-Sheng

Cinema as a medium – and, more pointedly for this piece, as an industry – will return and thrive again. Of this I am particularly optimistic. We love the movies too much. We love the ceremony of going, and all the associated tactile delicacies. The tastes, the smells. Even with the scale and presentation of the films themselves taken out of the equation, these are sensory experiences that home streaming cannot – will not – ever replicate. Even more, the sense of invitation. An invitation to be taken somewhere, somewhere away from your life. There’s too much powerful nostalgia in cinemas. Like our theatres or live music venues, they are places of a particular kind of attachment.

The people holding the keys to these venues may change, but the industry will continue.

It is only natural, now, to be concerned for what the future holds, however. With UK cases three times what they were during our first lockdown and the widespread dissemination of a vaccine still a work-in-progress, immediate fears are understandably high. But while we remain (largely) marooned at home, there’s perhaps no better time to remind ourselves of the value of the spaces we’ve had to give up.

Goodbye, Dragon Inn received a most-welcome blu-ray release last week thanks to the invaluable Second Run imprint. It was a buy-to-see for this viewer; the kind of film that struggles to find an outlet outside of boutique physical media releases. I had seen Apichatpong Weereasethakul’s bold claim that it amounts to the greatest film in 125 years of movie-making. As a confirmed appreciator of Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee, Hsiao-Hsien’s Daughters of the Nile and more or less any other example of Asian ‘slow cinema’, it was a calculated gamble. This probably would be for me. 

I write now after only my second viewing, but the gamble has paid off. This is an all-timer, but in a peculiar way. It is a defiantly niche picture; an art film. In 82 minutes its effect manages to be wholly transformative; changing my rhythms and thought processes; clearing away the clutter of the everyday that may have been percolating previously, leaving only its mercurial impressions to ponder.

The film is almost plotless. It’s a rainy night at the Fu-Ho Grand Theatre in Taipei. A packed auditorium watches as the opening titles of King Hu’s 1967 martial arts classic Dragon Inn start to play. Then, inexplicably, all but a handful of audience members remain. A Japanese tourist (Kiyonobu Mitamura) shifts seats, visits the bathroom, grows compelled to wander the supposedly off-limits areas of the building, as do a number of others. A stranger tells the tourist that the cinema is haunted. Maybe the stranger is a ghost. Maybe our tourist is. Maybe all the audience members are…

While a potent supernatural mood is conjured in the auditorium, a far more ordinary micro-drama is taking place around it. The Fu-Ho Grand Theatre appears to have only two members of staff; the projectionist (Lee Kang-Sheng, only seen toward the very end of the film) and the clubfooted cashier (Chen Hsiang-Chyi) who also doubles as the cleaner. In an overture we might assume to be a gesture of affection, she leaves for the projectionist a snack. He doesn’t take it. When the film ends, the auditorium is empty. The two staff members close up and we discover it is for the last time. The Fu-Ho is out of business, and Dragon Inn is it’s farewell screening.

There’s interesting lore surrounding Ming-Laing’s discovery of the Fu-Ho Grand Theatre and how he came to film there, and also more scholarly assessments of where this film is positioned in the greater arc of his filmography, but these anecdotes and essays can be found within the Second Run package and elsewhere besides. What I want to talk about briefly is how the film made me feel. 

While its fair to say that Goodbye, Dragon Inn has a very sad undertone – with its obsession with death and its pessimistic elegy to art house cinema – it’s also one of the most romantic films I’ve seen in some time. The romance is between the movies and us. Ming-Laing makes a statement here about the sorry state of independent cinema and dwindling attendance, but he also explores how connected the faithful are to these places of worship. While this cinema also seems to be a gay cruising haunt (another truism from Ming-Laing’s memories), the idea that the dead remain and haunt the place suggests to me that these are the spirits of profoundly moved cinephiles, so enraptured by the movies that they have perhaps chosen to remain, accepting a kind of purgatory, revisiting the same shows night after night. 

When we see great cinema it can feel like we carry a part of it away with us, but what if the opposite is true also? What if we leave a part of ourselves in the cinema? A kind of exchange. At my most romantic or poetic I’d suggest that in this way the cinema is a kind of death, because when we go there and we see a version of the world that is too perfect, too magical, it spoils us. We leave again but now just as shadows, returning to a reality that is now less real than the fantasies shown to us by the doggedly working, dispassionate projectionist. Our complete selves remain in the cinema, disembodied, trying to find a way into the film, into that perfection.

Ming-Laing chose Dragon Inn because of his own childhood memories of seeing it; memories which have made the film magical to him. The editing in Goodbye, Dragon Inn is very carefully calibrated. It’s a meditative experience, with most of the static shots holding for around a minute, sometimes quite a bit longer. There is one clear exception to this. When the cashier makes a routine visit to the auditorium and experiences a sliver of the film, Ming-Laing cuts rapidly, almost violently, between the movie and its fleeting visitor. Here he conveys impact. It’s a powerful act of punctuation in the rhythm of the piece, all the more striking for how reserved he remains the rest of the time. Perhaps this is the moment that the cashier becomes divided? Perhaps now she too is a ghost, joining the rank and file of spirits congregating at the Fu-Ho, waiting for the doors to reopen…?

There’s no score to Goodbye, Dragon Inn. Just the sounds of the rain and the movie within the movie. Echoing footsteps and the thrum of the projector. There’s virtually no dialogue, either. Intriguingly, two of the actors from Dragon Inn are in attendance at this final screening, and it is these two (Miao Tien and Shih Chun) who are afforded a little innocuous chit-chat as they are reunited afterward in the foyer. Still, in the main we are left with space. Space to ruminate and become lost in the hushed ambiance and spooky aura (I haven’t even gone into perhaps my favourite scene, of the woman eating seeds (Yang Kuei-Mei)). 

Our cinemas will reopen soon. By chance I’m writing this on the day the UK’s second government-mandated lockdown has ended, though further restrictions apply. I’m back to checking the websites for my local theatres daily for when I can return, get my fix again, find another too-perfect imagining of the world to encounter a little death over…

(…isn’t that what the French call an orgasm…?)

In the meantime, I now have Goodbye, Dragon Inn.


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