Seeing Goodbye, Dragon Inn made me realise how human-centric my approach to cinema still was. Before going into the film, I had the vague idea that it would depict the last showing at a soon-to-be-shut-down Taipei movie theatre, and that last film to be shown is King Hu’s Dragon Inn. My expectation was that the film would follow the stories of the audience members present at the cinema. Well, we do get a glimpse of that, but the director Tsai Ming-liang makes it very clear that there’s really only one protagonist in Goodbye, Dragon Inn—the movie theatre itself.
I remember watching Michelangelo Antonioni’s films for the first time. It was a revelation of sort to discover that space, landscapes, and objects could be equally commanding a force as people in the same frame. Take L’Eclisse for example. Ever-so-stunning Alain Delon and Monica Vitti sweep from a shot to shot, yet what equally fascinates me are the modern architectures, furniture, and cars in the frame. For Antonioni the rhythm of life consists not only of human presence and actions, but also of what surrounds them. ‘Dead time,’ as many like to call it, enables a more existentially reflective portrayal of life, and, at the same time, creates kind of surrealistic layers. A series of seemingly banal ‘dead time’ shots, which makes up the infamous ending of L’Eclisse, punctuates the dreading emptiness that penetrates the heart of the film, and manages to be astonishingly fresh and shocking. In short, Antonioni established in cinema the equal power balance between Man and the material surroundings for the future modernist visionaries.
Tsai Ming-liang, whom Jonathan Rosenbaum aptly named “the poet of loneliness,” took the path that Antonioni discovered few decades earlier, and paved it even further. He subverts the human-centric power structure, and assigns place—an antiquated Taipei cinema, in this case—a more dominant presence over people. To call Goodbye, Dragon Inn a film that consists largely of ‘dead time’ shots would be misleading because here, the term ‘dead time’ should be applied to the handful of shots made for the human characters and their psychology. Simply put, this is a location-centric film, as opposed to a human-centric one; its story is not developed ‘around’ the cinema, but ‘for’ the cinema. Not only is it a groundbreaking path for narrative cinema, but also a heartfelt homage to Tsai Ming-liang’s personal memories with cinemas from the past.
Tsai’s treatment of the human characters makes them look like spectres looming around the ‘haunted’ movie house: a ticket lady who is determined to give a young projectionist a steamed bun, old gentlemen who at young age were actually starred in Dragon Inn, a Japanese man in pursuit of homosexual encounters, etc. In fact, the first of almost non-existent dialogue in the film goes, “do you know this theatre is haunted?” There are hints of what could possibly be ‘plots’ revolving around each character, but the Taiwanese cinéaste does not develop them. There are a couple of shots in which the camera is positioned behind fence, staring at a hallway when the limping ticket lady slowly walks through, and lingers on at the empty hallway for some time. Not only is it uninterested in the human characters, but also ‘unable’ to follow them. It almost feels as though the characters in the film move for the sole purpose of showcasing the movie theatre.
This is not to say that Tsai Ming-liang dehumanises his characters in Goodbye, Dragon Inn—in fact, far from it. After all, a movie theatre ‘needs’ people. Even though we only find out towards the very end that the old movie house in the film is to shut down the next day, it is not very difficult to see that permanent demise and subsequent oblivion are just around the corner for the cinema. There is a prevailing sense of longing in Goodbye, Dragon Inn—cinema’s longing for people. There are numerous shots in the film capturing the lamentably small audience in their seats, whether or not they are actually engaging with King Hu’s action-packed movie. Most of them are not, but as long as there ‘are’ people in the seats, a movie theatre’s existential purpose is served.
That long-take shot of the again-empty screening hall with all the lights turned on presents to us deeply moving pathos. The position of the camera in it seems to personify the theatre by looking at the unoccupied seats from where the screen is probably located. The ticket lady with cleaning kits briefly enters the frame, but soon leaves; the camera stares at the empty space for well above two-three minutes. It’s as if the screen is waiting for a new audience, but we know that these seats will forever stay vacant, and the pouring rain outside feels like the theatre’s tears. Just outside the lobby, the two stars of Dragon Inn, Jun Shih and Miao Tien, unexpectedly reunite, and one of them says: “No one goes to the movies anymore, and no one remembers us anymore.” An elegy for an old-fashioned cinema and its once-glorious past.
The cinema may be on its way out from mainstream, but Cinema isn’t. One sequence stands out in this respect—the cross-cut sequence that alternates between the intense battle scene from Dragon Inn and the close-up of the ticket lady’s emotionally absorbed face. It’s a surprisingly exuberant moment in the film that otherwise feels like a dirge dedicated to the decay of a movie theatre. Her face is full of wonders, excitement, and tension, as if she, despite her job at the cinema, sees a film image for the first time. There repeatedly appear shots wherein she peeks into the hall in search of the projectionist before this, yet she does not look at the picture. During her time working at the theatre, it seems, she has never thought to see a film; but on the last day of its existence, she discovers the magic of Cinema. This brings my attention to the little boy who I suppose is Jun Shih’s grandson. Apart from the two retired actors, this boy is the only audience member to faithfully engage with King Hu’s classic. For him too, I believe, Cinema is a revealation in his life. Right next to Jun and Miao who are deep in melancholic thoughts stands a boy who has just woken up to the newfound passion for film—or am I being too hopeful?
What I’m getting at is that Tsai Ming-liang concludes Goodbye, Dragon Inn with the demise of an old cinema, as well as the new-born love for Cinema. Weirdly enough, this reminds me of the title of Rosenbaum’s book, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. Yes, it’s deeply saddening to see a historic movie house shut down due to unpopularity, but we can be, at the same time, rest assured that love for film will live on. Subtle, yet confident affirmation for Cinema from Tsai Ming-liang. And it’s all done in a way that convinces people that Cinema still can be fresh and extraordinary.