Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003)
Directed by Tsai Ming-liang
Sunday, September 30, at the Museum of the Moving Image, part of its Hoberman-curated Film After Film series
Whatever vogue Tsai Ming-liang enjoyed at the turn of the millennium may have faded, but the power and relevancy of this, one of his best and most popular pictures, have not faded. The director's epically long takes with zero movement—not a style he invented but one he made his own through exaggeration—have since been echoed in certain quadrants of the New Romanian Cinema and cheapened by hollow British hack Steve McQueen, but they remain mesmerizing in his hands, and his care for composition (with cinematographer Pen-jung Liao) is matchless among his extended-take contemporaries.
If 2001's What Time Is It There? is Tsai's Truffaut film, this is his Tati film, each scene a drawn-out set piece leaning more toward either tragedy or comedy. The setting is always somewhere in or around the giant Fu-Ho Grand movie theater in Taipei, once proud and flourishing and now on the brink of "temporary" closing, during the last 80-something minutes of a screening of King Hu's 1967 swords-and-eunuchs wuxia film, Dragon Inn. The "laughs", as in Tati, are slow-burning, and revolve around one male patron (Kiyonobu Mitamura) who can't seem to concentrate on the movie for the loud sucking and crunching eating sounds the oblivious patrons make around him (though it turns out he's there mostly to cruise). Meanwhile, a dead-legged ticket seller (Chen Shiang-chyi)'s longing for the projectionist is less sweaty, and not farcically lightened.
A rapt child viewer and two old men, played by actual King Hu vets, in the audience are Tsai's effective shortcut to full-circle, multi-generational poignancy. In one of the film's dozen or so lines of dialogue, one of the elders laments that "no one goes to the movies anymore", while a five-minute take of the desolate empty theater, post-showing, unsubtly underlines the feeling of something lost. A lovely 60s Cantonese pop song injects unexpected warmth at the end, but there's irony there, too—onscreen, the box office girl is hobbling home, alone, in the rain.