Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2003)

28 March 2021

Flaneur culture emerged during the nascent era of industrialism to denote citizens who could walk the city with a sense of leisure—a recurring, if unintentional trope in Tsai Ming-Liang’s 2003 film Goodbye, Dragon Inn. Cinemas are fragile and delicate spaces, as highlighted throughout Tsai’s film, which portrays a single-theatre cinema in Taipei before its imminent closure. Cinemas provide humans with the opportunity to escape and project their own lives onto the fantasies of others, if only for a short period of time. 

Set purely within the confines of the theatre complex, the audience falls prey to a variety of different characters as they intersect and engage with the cinema, which is playing the 1967 wuxia epic Dragon Inn. These include the slightly paralysed ticket operator played by Chen Shiang-chyi, the projectionist played by long-time Tsai collaborator Lee Kang-sheng and the comically ‘lost’ tourist played by Kiyonobu Mitamura.

Tsai’s work is influential around the world and at festivals, not just because he’s an outstanding director but also due to his efforts in re-energising Taiwanese cinema during the late 80s. Although Malaysian-born, Tsai sought to pursue filmmaking in Taiwan.His early films closely followed narrative tropes and were shaped by an emphasis on dialogue. However, this developed, or regressed, around the turn of millennium as he moved towards a new style of “slow cinema”. Long takes, careful direction and minimal dialogue now typify his films and Goodbye, Dragon Inn is part of this shift.

In the opening sequence of the film, we watch the ticket operator slowly walk from the foreground into the background. Vibrant and lurid shades of deep blue and red evoke the urban environment and the palatial decay of the theatre is suggested by its sweaty, cracked walls. After an extended length of time, she returns  to her ticket booth to heat a dumpling and we follow her again to the projection booth as rain pours from all directions, further emphasising the sense that the cinema is alive, carrying a soul, one which cannot be defeated. 

Goodbye, Dragon Inn was recently screened at ACMI as part of a new series called “Decadent,” highlighting ten significant movies in world cinema from the first decade of the new millennium as a part of Fireflies press. Watching this movie in a theatre like ACMI felt significant, given how much the “death” of cinema and cinema-going was foreshadowed during the height of the pandemic in 2020.   Tsai’s slow and relentlessly patient shots are given the space and time to unravel for an audience in a theatre, an experience that is much more difficult to emulate on a domestic or portable device. 

This felt particularly pertinent during a scene where the tourist/cinephile walks to a urinal. Viewing the bathroom from a corner, the cubicles on one side and urinals on the other, the character awkwardly begins to urinate. Holding the shot for an extensive period of time, we watch as two separate men take their positions next to the tourist; a man leaves a cubicle with another man waiting inside; and a passer-by picks up his camera from the ledge above the tourist’s head, creating comical pleasure as the audience feels his discomfort.

Tsai’s film is explicitly metatextual, demonstrated by the continuous shots of the audience watching the wuxia film in all of its grainy and textured celluloid glory, and further heightened by the detail that two of the spectators (Jun Shi and Miao Tien) had starred in it. The meta-quality of the film was particularly heartfelt in one of the closing shots, comprising the epilogue, in which the red-coloured seats of the theatre are framed in a balanced long take. I don’t often think of cinemas as holding human characteristics, perhaps I’m not romantic enough, but I suddenly began to think of the cinema as falling into a long sleep during the vast amount of time spent without humans inside them. It felt relevant particularly given the horrific events of last year. 

After the credits rolled, a Q and A was presented between author Nick Pinkerton and Annabel Brady-Brown, the co-editor of Fireflies. Nick explained that the theatre in the film survived because it was a communal facility encompassing market stands and a gym/pool. It was a neighbourhood facility much the same as Greater Union once was. Long live cinema, I thought.

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