Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), Tsai Ming-liang [4/5]
Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) has been called many things: a Taiwanese Last Picture Show, a highbrow Cinema Paradiso, a boring snoozefest, an Antonioniesque journey of urban isolation, and a eulogy to single-screen movie palaces. But my favorite thing about it is how slow cinema legend of the Taiwanese Second New Wave Tsai Ming-liang frames his compositions to force the viewer's eye into empty spaces where he can reveal invisible substories.
These tiny B stories like a hobbled woman pining away over a projectionist she can't find, a gay patron unsuccessfully cruising the theater, and "ghosts" from the 1960s wuxia (Chinese martial arts hero film) screening in the theater populate nearly every scene. It is through these B stories' use of free space, absence of dialogue, and visual narratives (a word is not spoken in the movie until the last hour: "Did you know this theater is haunted?") that the film could seem confusingly empty to the less attentive viewer. I know this because I was the less attentive viewer.
Take the bathroom scene for example (watch here). In the scene, Ming-liang and his DP Pen-Jung place the camera high up in the corner of a bathroom, overlooking a wall of urinals. Although the bathroom is nearly empty, three patrons choose to use the three urinals directly next to one another, a funny faux-pas in the world of men's room mores. The patron in the middle is one of the film's main characters, a gay Japanese tourist unsuccessfully cruising the joint for a hook-up. In the composition, the framing leaves half the shot empty and groups the three subjects in the bottom right, clumped up at their neighboring urinals. Then Ming-liang holds this shot for three minutes of excruciatingly awkward tension with the only sound being the trickle of water: not a whisper of dialogue is spoken.
It's very funny, but it also serves a narrative purpose. Suddenly, that other half of the frame that we've visually neglected comes to life as a toilet is flushed and a man steps out of the stall. No later does he leave than a hand reaches out from within the same stall to close the door behind him and lock it. When it's revealed that two men were having an affair in the stall, the Japanese tourist's failed attempts are only highlighted: the whole scene he has been sneaking looks to his left and right trying — and failing — to meet the eyes of his peers. Then, a third man comes into the bathroom and beelines for our main character who is sandwiched between the two urinal users. He awkwardly reaches over his shoulder and grabs a pack of cigarettes resting on the tile shelf over the urinals. Then he leaves.
When speaking of his director of photography Liao Pen-Jung in an interview, Ming-liang says, "Liao is excellent at framing the shots. I'm always very pleased with his framing. His work adds a metaphorical value to the images... the way it amplifies the plot and the atmosphere." This is the quality that makes Goodbye, Dragon Inn a visually expressive movie unique among its peers. Another scene shows two actors in the dark of the auditorium watching their younger selves featured in the wuxia film from the 60s being screened in the theater. In a close-up, one of them becomes overwhelmed by nostalgia and begins to cry. Whether they are ghosts or older patrons signaling a bygone Golden Age, this scene lends a dream-like emotional quality to the story without a word of explanation.
Even when his frames are devoid of these characters and their subtextual struggles, they have a visual poignancy. His style? Minimalism, brightly-colored signs, fixed-camera shots from either a high up or low down vantage (similar to Ozu's Tatami shot), the soft hush of rain and the use of watery reflective surfaces to bounce light. "It's almost as if the building is another member of the cast," says Ming-liang, taking us on a caving expedition through the tiled tunnels and storage rooms of the old, dilapidated beast. If Wes Anderson prefers forced symmetry, overhead close-ups, and pastel color palettes to achieve a storybook feel, Ming-liang's movies take us to the world of "chill lofi beats to study to," the isolation of the projectionist room. Why? To make us feel that urban ennui, to reflect on what it means for the current state of movies. In his eponymously titled book on the film “Goodbye, Dragon Inn,” Nick Pinkerton writes:
“All of the walls seem to be the same shade of soiled aquamarine, each corner stained with dark tendrils of water damage, and everything contributes to the overall impression of being in the hull of some great vessel off on an underbooked farewell cruise, where the muted, echoing soundtrack of Dragon Inn approximates the moans of a pressurised belowdecks”
It achieves an ambiance that lends itself very well to Ming-liang's nostalgia for movies, a nostalgia I share for the sweeping epics of Lean's Lawrence of Arabia and Kurosawa's Ran. The hobbled woman character herself is based off Ming-liang's memories of a box-office cashier at the Odeon, one of the theaters he attended as a child. It's very poetic then that a movie about the decline of cinematic spaces, especially singe-screen urban movie palaces and their relationship to the 1960s wuxia epics — the Western genre of mid-century China and Taiwan — only exists because the owner of the Fu-Ho Theater where it’s shot was going to have to shut it down before Ming-liang rented it out to shoot something he hadn’t dreamed up yet. Only after he impulsively rented it to save his childhood memories of similar theaters, Ming-liang sat down to write Goodbye, Dragon Inn.
4/5, a model for the purely visual narrative power of slow cinema, a memory of the way movies used to be, and a poignant story of the loss of cinematic space and urban isolation.