Goodbye Dragon Inn, by Tsao

Reviewed by David Schloss

Ming-Liang Tsao’s “Goodbye Dragon Inn” (2003), is a very odd film, indeed. Nothing much “happens” in this 90-odd minute film, but an atmosphere of regret, elegy and surprising surreal tension is often evoked and sustained. It was shown twice, years ago, at the Cincinnati Art Museum by The Cincinnati Film Society, now defunct, where I first saw it.

Since, I’ve seen his next film, “The Wayward Cloud” (2005), much more melodramatic in “plot,” with often very “unrealistically” saturated color, and equally maddeningly oblique and strange. It concerns a pornography film actor and a girl who likes him, and, after a very slow buildup, the last scene is one of the more emotionally disturbing, even devastating, that I’ve ever seen. I say this as high praise. Tsao is Malaysian-born, working in Taiwan., a clearly recognizable auteur, with his own particular style and temperament, and his own obsessive themes, which one can extrapolate from just two films.

This film opens on a nondescript arcade under heavy, streaming rain, the entrance to a cavernous old movie palace (with over 1000 seats, we soon discover). A black cat flits across the passageway (as it will flit quickly through a few later scenes, on the margin, hardly centrally symbolic). The language of the film is stasis, static compositions contrived to cover the actors’ movements approaching and moving in and beyond the frames—very occasionally very slightly panning up or across to follow them walking a bit, but much more often remaining implacably still, quite visually contrived, as often the geometric, compositionally distinguished shots are deliberately beautiful.

The rich and saturated colors, the grungy grimy textures of the locale are the prime performers here, in ways. Often, characters stare for uncomfortably extended takes into space, or at the movie screen they watch, and sometimes at each other—signifying what: cogitation, alienation, despair? Inside, at the start, we see through a slightly parted curtain a full house of people’s heads unmoving, watching the end titles of a film. The Chinese characters on page after page flip, uncomfortably, for a long, long while.

Then, cut to a dim corridor suffused with damp, peeling paint at which a woman stands, pensive, at a sink. The two main characters, this severely limping youngish, pretty, but socially recessive woman clumps about the premises, slowly cleaning, walking backstage corridors in picturesque shots of dank and crumbling seediness and decay under pouring rain outside, dripping into buckets inside. Later, she prepares a steamed bun and slowly eats a part, then carries the major part to the empty projection booth. This takes a few minutes, literally, of screen time. Later, the food untouched, she goes and sits in the still-empty booth, then takes the bun away, back to her run down plastic furniture in the front box office – though, we never see anyone pay.

Early in the film, a young man sidles in and enters the auditorium while she stares into space at that sink, establishing the method and the terms of the action. Sometimes she stares at mirrors. The young man seems at first our lead: chinless, strange, he eventually proclaims, I am Japanese—one line of fewer than ten perhaps in the whole, almost silent of conversation film. Their stories are intercut at first, though indiscernible as to why. Eventually the theater is inhabited by some few others, mostly men in the truly cavernous plush but obviously older theater. One couple eats noisily, so the young man moves; other men come in. One hangs unshod feet over the seat behind the young man, almost touching his head. Another man walks in, sits down right next to him with rows and rows of empty seats.

About then, I thought, Ah, it’s a homoerotic trysting place. In all the empty seats, half a dozen men, one often staring at another, who looks straight ahead, impassive, at the screen. Then the staring one gets up and sits right next to someone else. A lot of shuffling in and out of the film that’s showing—a wide screen sword actioner (or maybe a conflation of more than one, seeming John Fordish at times with a hero loner/outsider who comes to an outpost, or a woman warrior who slices up antagonists with not so deft swordplay.) Anyway, the music track is from the film, the shots with camera movements only on the huge wide screen beyond the heads watching from the seats, the dialogue on screen in the projected film in some sort of tangential counterpoint perhaps to the almost total lack of dramatic action in the seats.

Sometimes the camera goes to the labyrinthine passages behind the screen, a cluttered storeroom, narrow passages where men stand and gaze and smoke, affectlessly—and have to squeeze past one another, wordlessly, to get wherever it is they’re going. Who knows where or why? At one point, three men line up at adjacent urinals along a line of at least twenty of them. They stare straight ahead, don’t speak. One smokes, slowly. The shot lasts for minutes. Nothing happens much; a man comes in and retrieves a pack of cigarettes from the ledge in front of the three impassive men. It was then I thought of Jacques Tati: the silent deadpan comedy of uncomfortable social moments—but here more in service to an awkward loneliness—the young man searches the faces of the other men in the theater yearningly.

At last, in a dark passageway in the bowels of the place, some dialogue. This is after an hour of only ambient sounds: footsteps, noisy eating, rain… The smoking man reflectively speaks: There are ghosts here in this place. Ghosts. And the young man leans close, uncomfortably, into his face. Then the man turns away. The young man calls out: I am Japanese. The other calls back Sayonara. He answers, Sayonara, and holds a bow, a solid minute. Another cut away.

One might think of Ozu with his static camera, but the schema here is not the rigorous geometry of Ozu’s editing, the kneeling compositions, the occasionally outside still life intercuts to place the mood. It’s more like Bresson without his spiritual implications, but perhaps its own intended overtones. Shots are held long before and after someone—usually the limping woman—enters and then walks through and leaves. The compositions seem to be contrived to accommodate those movements, cunningly and visually adept. The shots often held long after she’s left the screen, show an emptiness contemplated endlessly. In fact, one shot lasts literally for minutes after she’s moved through the empty theater near the end: we see a static long-shot held of enormous rows of now emptied plush red seats, lights up, in loving elegy, perhaps.

After the film inside, two men meet, recognize each other in the lobby, speak: Teacher Miao! And I hardly ever go to movies anymore. An answer: No one does. The elder one is with the only child on screen, his grandson, we suppose—though he went out a long time alone during the film and left the boy alone, squirming in his seat (a rare movement at all for any character besides those walking somnambulist-like through the maze beyond the auditorium). They stare off at the lobby posters. Cut. No one else is seen leaving—ghosts? Even the Japanese young man has disappeared.

Then the woman finishes up, prepares to leave, clumps off. The projectionist appears, takes the bun from her office, goes out past the lobby– “We will be temporarily closed,” reads a sign on the wall–slowly closes the iron grates and rides off on his motorcycle, all in “real time,” as everything before—or even slower… We see the opening shot’s perspective, again, outside the theater where the woman has hidden, watching him drive off. She moves off into the wider camera set up of the neighborhood street we saw him enter. She walks out into the pouring rain under an umbrella, alone. She avoids a puddle, and the film ends…

Another set of Chinese characters, a slow crawl of calligraphic end titles fills the screen, this time in modern black on white. A song from the sixties about the singer being unable to forget underlines the nostalgic purpose of the enterprise, we suppose, at last less indirectly so.
This film is deadpan, subtly indirect, yet sometimes funny and surreal, with its uncomfortable social interactions that never go anywhere much yet create moments of tension, comic or pathetic, sprinkled throughout. The method generates a quest for interpretation, to make sense of the extremely sparse bits of information, the oblique details to piece together like an emotional puzzle.

It’s altogether an unusual aesthetic and emotional experience to enter into this ghostly yet mysteriously charged and often beautifully composed world of almost sleepwalking patrons of the cinema–voyeuristic, perhaps, but more inscrutable—mostly smoking, their other motivations only inferable, or not at all. So one leaves the theater transformed into the quiet pervasive mood of other-worldliness this film creates in loving, nuanced, yet distancing detail. A tiny tone poem, exquisite in its self-limitations, it aspires to elegize, and does: An A for all its accomplishment, but it requires a taste for oblique exposition and lack of overt action not pleasing to everyone, I’d assume. It’s really not boring at all, because it creates a state of expectation, puzzlement, thus tension, throughout. It left this viewer in a state of quiet, happy contemplation before returning to the noisy outer world.

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