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Goodbye, Dragon Inn
The #1 foreign film in the 2004 Village Voice critics' poll is one that you probably have never heard of. Goodbye, Dragon Inn played for a week or two this fall in a few major cities and then quickly disappeared. Yet its lack of commercial viability has nothing to do with its quality, and now that it's out on dvd, cinephiles will get a chance to see what many critics have been raving about.
Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang is known in film circles for his rigorous, slow, demanding works. Though he has a quirky brand of humor that shows up in movies like What Time Is It There? and The Hole, his films are challenging for audiences not used to his long takes. His latest work is a profound meditation on the reasons why we watch movies as well as a stirring defense of his own approach to cinema. It is certainly a slow, difficult work but one that richly rewards those who can appreciate Tsai's approach.
The film takes place entirely in a run-down movie theater, where a screening of Dragon Inn, the 1967 King Hu martial-arts classic, is taking place. The opening shot places us in various locations in the theater, as the movie begins. Almost as if Tsai is asking us, where do you like to sit when you watch a film? We also notice that where you sit makes a difference in how you see. Do we watch from the balcony? Up front? By ourselves or in the middle of a bunch of people? Each one affects the viewing experience. Other scenes continue this theme, and cinephiles will take great delight in Tsai's humor. One hilarious sequence involves a young man intently watching the movie only to be distracted by a couple eating loudly nearby. The man moves to get away, only to be beset by patrons who choose to sit right next to him, despite the presence of numerous empty seats. Good Bye, Dragon Inn is spectacularly funny in places, with Tsai using static, long takes to humorous effect. One shot in a men's bathroom is wry just because it goes on so long, but then he tops it off with a fantastic visual joke.
The central character in Tsai's film is a female ticket-taker/manager. She has a club foot, which hinders her as she makes her rounds around the theater--checking in on the bathrooms, the projection booth, the back hallways. Tsai's camera follows her around, making us wonder about her and why she does this job. In an early sequence, she torturously walks up several flights of stairs to deliver a rice bowl to the unseen projectionist. Near the movie's end, she cleans up the theater before turning off the lights. There's a deep sense of melancholy about her and not just because of her injury.
Other characters include various patrons, though there aren't many of those. An older man and his grandson, a mysterious middle-aged man who gets teary-eyed near the end, a hooker who seems to have come just to get out of the rain, a few younger men more interested in hooking up with each other than watching the film. Only a few people actually pay attention to what's on screen.
So, what's all this about? Why is this such a masterpiece? Especially when the movie requires you to sit through minutes-long scenes where absolutely nothing happens.
A pivotal moment occurs around the 30-minute mark. The ticket taker, on her rounds, opens the door behind the screen. She's framed inside the doorway, while the screen looms to the right of her. It's an amazing composition, as the visceral swordplay on the screen acts as a counterpoint to the lack of size or movement in the other "frame." And then comes one of the most startling series of edits you'll ever see. Tsai cuts to a close-up of the ticket taker's face in profile. Her face is lit up with the reflection of the movie as she stares at it in wonder. Less than a second goes by, and Tsai cuts to the movie itself, where a heroine is wielding a sword with gusto and skill. Quick cut back to the ticket taker. Quick cut back to the movie heroine. Quick cut back to the ticket taker. In a movie filled with takes that literally go on for several minutes, this series of multiple cuts in a span of a few seconds is mind-blowing. And with it, Tsai focuses our attention on these two women: one from 1967, one from today.
Though this series of edits certainly contrasts one woman with the other, Tsai is also equating the two, arguing that the ticket taker is just as much a heroine as the martial artist, just as interesting and compelling a character. She too has hopes and dreams, as we see in some poignantly moving scenes in the middle and end of the film. And she, too, is worthy of a spectacular final shot, as she strides away while the music swells.
And this brings us to Tsai's central point: that one type of character is just as worthy as another type and, therefore, one type of story is just as worthy as another. In that, Good Bye, Dragon Inn becomes a powerful defense for the kind of movies Tsai makes, films in which marginalized characters struggle with apparently banal difficulties. They're not superheroes, they're not martial artists, they're not saving the world. And yet they are worthy of our attention. In East Asian cinema, which has become dominated by the martial arts and horror genres, this is an incredibly bold assertion.
It's not that Tsai is arguing his style is better than all the others. For Good Bye, Dragon Inn is also a beautiful tribute to King Hu and the martial arts movies of Tsai's youth; two of the actors from the original Dragon Inn turn up as themselves to watch their younger versions on screen. Rather, Tsai is arguing for a multiplicity of styles, a whole range of stories and techniques. Yes, let's have exhilarating King Hu-like films, but let's also create a space for the kind of movies Tsai makes, ones in which perfect camera placements force the audience to look, not just watch. Ones in which the sound design (echoes, subtle clicks) is fundamental. Ones in which apparently not a lot happens and yet the whole world takes place.
J. Robert Parks 2/6/2005