Goodbye, Dragon Inn
2003Director: Tsai Ming-liang
Cast: Kang-sheng Lee, Shiang-chyi Chen
n A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, the Raging Bull director observed, "I believe there is a spirituality in films...It is as though movies answered an ancient quest for the common unconscious. They fulfill a spiritual need that people have to share a common memory."
Few contemporary filmmakers seem as acutely aware of this quality as Tsai Ming-liang. Built around long, hypnotic, ambiguously framed static shots (reminiscent of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Bela Tarr—not to mention Tarkovsky), Tsai’s films, including What Time Is It There?, The River, The Hole, and Vive L’Amour, are nothing if not meditations on the stifling inability of his characters to externalize their troubled inner lives. What Time Is It There?, in particular, plays like a sort of metaphysical mystery movie; because Tsai allows so little to rise distinctly above the surface, he leaves the audience pondering, throughout, what exactly his characters are thinking and feeling. In a roundabout way, Tsai’s unique, rigid brand of formalism (at first, off-puttingly cold, to some) leads effectively to an uncommonly intimate level of audience empathy.
With Goodbye, Dragon Inn, yet another masterpiece, Tsai has made his most starkly minimal film to date, and, in some ways, his most sublime. Set on a rainy Taipei night, in the soon-to-be-torn-down Fu-Ho movie house, during a screening of King Hu’s Dragon Inn, Tsai’s latest is one of the most direct examinations ever put to celluloid of the movie-viewing process itself, and specifically of the uniquely communal nature of sitting with a roomful of strangers in a darkened theatre, watching images flicker onto a projection screen. In a sense, it’s the most private of public spaces—a place where our personal perceptions come temporarily together to form a collective experience. There’s nothing else quite like it.
Tsai’s sadly ironic twist here is that rather than a theatre full of attentive film aficionados watching the martial arts classic, the Fu-Ho is instead haunted (perhaps literally as well as figuratively, though strict literalization is fairly fruitless when discussing films as poetic as Tsai’s) by lonely gay men cruising for male company (or maybe just a quickie in the rest room, as suggested by the film’s most deadpan sequence), a crippled ticket-taker limping around the building in attempt to track down the projectionist (played by Tsai’s usual protagonist, Lee Kang-Sheng), and weary ghosts of movies past.
What this scenario may or may not amount to is a requiem for the death of cinema. The old movie houses of decades past have been replaced by mall multiplexes sandwiched in-between Old Navy and The Gap. This unfortunate reality segues easily into heated arguments about the increasingly blurred line between commerce and art with regards to film. Popping in mid-way through your shopping trip to catch Shrek 2 or Troy just seems to somehow lack that collective spiritual weight that Scorsese was speaking about in the passage quoted above.
As in every Tsai film I’ve seen, the seeming impossibility of genuine human connection in modern society is somewhere near the center of focus. His characters are often deeply depressed, perhaps beyond the point of being consoled. For me, his most perfect representation of this sense of repression and disconnectedness came in What Time Is It There? when Shiang-chyi, after relocating to Paris from Taipei, lies in bed with another woman, unable to even approximate sexual or romantic intimacy. Long shots such as these speak volumes about the emotional frustration and spiritual weariness of Tsai’s characters. The best the men in Goodbye, Dragon Inn have to hope for, it seems, is a bit of furtive sexual gratification in an old movie house.
By: Josh Timmermann
Published on: 2004-06-09