Goodbye, Dragon Inn

Reviewed By Greg Muskewitz
Posted 02/04/04 03:47:45

"A confession of love to cinema."
5 stars (Awesome)

Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang follows up his homage to French New Wave cinema in What Time Is it There?, with an even more personal and poetic tribute to movie-going and a sweet parable about loneliness and the invasion of personal space.

Enter the Fu Hu Grand Theater on a very rainy night, showing the 1966 martial arts film Dragon Inn to next to no one. Ming-liang’s extreme minimalism in style stretches to the storytelling as well; there is no story being told as there are glimpses of life caught between blinks. Shot by Liao Ben-bong, Ming-liang uses the framing device of setting up a composition and letting the action (so to call it) come and go within it. The film is slower and less eventful than What Time … ?, but the camera movements are actually more liberal. In observance are the ticket-taker girl who walks with a gimp, a chain-smoking projectionist, a very small handful of audience members — most using the theater as a sex agora — and a couple of “spirits” from Dragon Inn longing for the old days. Ming-liang has created a metaphor for the movie-going experience, and seemingly a partial criticism especially of American audiences. He pokes fun at the nuisance of careless and rude viewers — in a huge auditorium, the serious movie-watcher attracts a woman who must put her feet on the seat next to his head, a couple who cannot eat their snacks any louder, a serial seat-changer, likely looking to pick the guy up. He shows the cinema as a place to come for sex, exhibited by the inference of sex in film (though not in the film they’re watching), as well as the long, cold concrete hallways where guys brush up against each other for reasons not so unknown. Apart from the subtitled dialogue of the film that’s being watched, Ming-liang’s first dialogue doesn’t come until after the 30-minute mark, where under half-a-dozen monosyllabic lines are shared, and then not again until shortly before the film’s close. But what’s going on in Goodbye Dragon Inn doesn’t need or have words to communicate what the experience is about, or to pierce the quiet loneliness that the people who come there to watch, live in. Each of the characters are there for a reason, whether it be work, film-viewing, sex, etc., and each one of them has an idea of what they want out of that experience, which may not be the same thing as the next person. Everyone has his or her small amount of personal space invaded, from viewing space to working space, to peeing space. And there’s plenty of time in the short-and-sweet 82-minutes to examine the space of the aging and soon-to-be-closed theaterhouse, to disconnectedly follow the ticket-taker who clicks and clomps up and down endless stairwells, to sit in the projectionist’s booth with her and watch a cigarette burn, to hover in the men’s urinal as the timid sex addicts stand there waiting to make their move, etc. It’s determinedly challenging, not for a typical multiplex audience (who, though they found the annoyances of loud-eating and foot-putting funny, had no qualms about being disruptive and invading my personal space by complaining throughout the film), but there is a strong commiseration, I think, among lovers of film that is not to be missed here. Ming-liang writes an eloquent billet-doux that has the heart-felt sensibilities and emotions of what loving and living with film are about. Don’t mistake it for tedium, it’s pure appreciation. With Lee Kang-sheng, Chen Shiang-chyi, Mitamura Kiyonobu, Miao Tien, and Shi Jun.

[Absolutely to be seen.]

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