Ahh, a film about cinema. Nope, it’s not a boring documentary about the Lumiere Brothers, Georges Melies or film’s evolution to Disney films and CGI movies. Goodbye, Dragon Inn presents a touching tribute to the cinema prior to mass-produced Hollywood movies.
Imagine watching a cinema while inside a cinema. Sounds strange but yep, this it the case for Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang’s 2003 work. The film opens in an unusual way; we hear a male narrator reciting the backdrop to another Chinese film, King Hu’s wuxia film Dragon Inn (1967). The background sounds blast loudly on my speakers and the brightly coloured cinema screen contrasts greatly with the pitch-dark scenes we see later. When we see the credit scenes, we noticed that the old Taipei cinema is actually packed with movie-goers. But this was the exact opposite case in the film’s ending.
As the film progresses, we see the emergence of three major plot lines: a homosexual Japanese man cruising for a sexual encounter in the old Fu-Ho theatre; a fairly young and crippled ticket woman making her way to the projectionist’s room to express her love for him; and actors of the 1967’s film reuniting in the theatre as they watch their former selves on the big screen for the last time.
You might not have noticed it at the start but the cinematography is carefully selected to mimic the actual viewing experience in a cinema. The opening credits are shown at the beginning and we see the various types of cinema-goers. There are those who munch their snacks without a slight bid of regards to others and the fidgety ones who keep interrupting your movie experience. And at the same time, we have a serious audience who keeps his eyes glued to the screen even when their neighbour is sexually pestering him. While the wuxia movie is showing, the life outside the cinema hall has not stopped. The ticket lady limps to deliver her gift – a Chinese longevity peach – to the projectionist she likes. All these events unfolding itself while Dragon Inn is showing resemble how real life does not stop for anyone, let alone a movie.
REEL IS NOT REAL
Despite its relatively simple plot, the 2003 movie can be rather hard to watch as we impatient audiences are so used to big and animated actions on the screen. I expected epic and comedic scenes in the show where the Japanese guy and the ticket lady can each find their love in the cinema and live a happy married life. But no, this is not what Tsai gives us in the 90 mins shot. We did not get a quick escapade of life; we are, on the contrary, shown a glimpse of real life in a Taipei city.
Tsai adopted a series of long takes to mimic real life screen time and at first, it does help to build-up anticipations and emotions for the climax. But as we soon get used to this, long takes simply lowers our expectations that anything will happen. We are forced to sit through minutes where nothing really happens. But that’s just the way it is with life, isn’t it? Life is nothing as wild as presented in the 007 series or as romantic in the Before… trilogy and you would be the luckiest person on earth if you had friends like Rachel, Joey, Phoebe, Chandler, Monica and Ross. Just like how we see the characters in Goodbye, Dragon Inn eating, taking long toilet breaks and walking around doing nothing, real life, unfortunately is filled with repetitive and mundane moments. But we all have hopes for each day that someone out there will persevere through flights of stairs to express their feelings for us with a steamed bun.
And certainly life has its own challenges. In this movie, we witnessed how the characters have unfulfilled and unattainable desires. In the homosexual scene, there are just too many people coming in and out of the toilet, making it impossible for any sexual acts to be performed. The Japanese guy was rejected by the handsome Chen Chao-Jung in the dark alleyway and our projectionist ignored the longevity bun left by his colleague. It is entirely different world of the Dragon Inn where the brave and valiant heroine can save the day in the fictional Ming Dynasty setting. There simply is a gap between our world and the cinematic world.
A TRIBUTE TO THE PAST
With the adoption of the 1940s song liu lian 留恋 as the film’s closure, it feels like Tsai is dedicating his film to the people and memories of the past. Having fond memories of his childhood, Tsai shares this nostalgia through the old movie paraphernalia and collectibles which were used as props. Most notably, the casting of Miao Tien and Shi Jun as themselves and the choice to screen the martial arts classic only invoke childhood memories in, possibly, the cinema-goers who have grown up seeing them.
As I watched the film as part of my class, I couldn’t help but feel emotional in the last few scenes, specifically the one where the ticket lady cleaned up the cinema. It is interesting to note that it is in fact our very first time seeing the massive Fu-Ho theatre in all its glory and yet it’s our last time. It seems to me that this particular long take scene is for us to arrest this moment, forcing us to remember the cinema in its details before it closes down. And yes, the scene is extremely long and screen time felt like real time. When I was watching it, it has a similar dreadful feeling when our loved ones bid us farewell. It’s like the cinema is bidding us goodbye or maybe it’s the other way round, for us to thank the cinema for the memories and say farewells. If the cinema is a person or has emotions, I guess this is how it feels.
And while we are at the topic of nostalgia, let’s talk about the ghosts in the movie. They are unlike any you’ve seen, well, in movies hopefully. Gone are the long hair wigs and pearl-white drapes. The director wants to challenge and critique Classical Hollywood Cinema here by making the ordinary extraordinary. Forget long-haired blood-dripping ghosts, the ones we see in the film look, behave and munch on peanuts like normal beings. In addition, by abandoning dramatic moments, we are given an emotional climax – Shi Jun crying as he realises it’s the last time he will ever see himself on the big screen. This, again, proves Tsai’s point that films do not need a predictable story to impress and appeal to viewers. And as Tsai Ming-Liang envisioned, he, indeed, need not follow the footsteps of Hollywood films for Goodbye, Dragon Inn.