By ALIZa MA
Tsai Ming-liang’s poetic Goodbye, Dragon Inn charts the empty spaces found within—and created by—cinemas fading into obscurity.
The Fu-Ho Da Xi-yuan, or the “Lucky Together Grand Theater,” occupies a special place in the films of Tsai Ming-liang. In the opening scene of Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), the old cinema is showing King Hu’s 1967 wuxia (swordplay) masterpiece Dragon Inn on 35mm to a rapt, packed house. The widescreen projection is perfectly masked and the film’s soundtrack of Chinese trumpets pierces into a harmoniously lived-in auditorium, intermingling on-screen and off-screen atmospheres of excitement and grandiosity. If you look closely, you can see the back of Tsai’s head in the audience. In the next scene, an undetermined amount of time has elapsed and a piece of plastic tarp has been hastily slung across the leaky, moldy lobby of the Fu-Ho, inscribed with the five characters of the cinema marquee. Their China-red calligraphy appears jarringly out of time, from a past that feels as distant as a King Hu film does to its modern-day audiences. It’s a past anchored in collective experiences and rituals, suffused with spirituality and superstition: one that feels impenetrable, save for in a dream state or a moment of déjà vu. The bygone world summoned up by this calligraphy is sadly belied by the cheapness of the plastic canvas. One wonders if there was a sturdier sign with similar lettering permanently installed outside the cinema in the preceding decades of its existence—majestically lit up in neon, maybe—marking an era when prestige wuxia pictures by King Hu and his coevals poured out of the wellspring of production studios in their initial theatrical release cycles, feeding into a steady distribution stream that assuredly ended with sold-out screenings, as shown at the beginning of Tsai’s film.
Contrary to its departure-taking English title, Goodbye, Dragon Inn is called Bu San in Chinese, meaning “to never leave.” I’ve always thought that somewhere in the droll, irony-fraught gulf between these two titles exists an expansive truth about cinema and cinephilia. Cinema, an art form charged with sick eros—and the medium of choice for the perpetually insomniac, socially displaced, and culturally isolated—has always been possessed of an elusive nature, constantly being cast into the past tense as it is projected to its audiences frame by frame, disappearing from under you no matter how hard you try to hold its reflective gaze. The next time you see this film it might be 10 or more years later in its re-release, in a different (i.e., probably worse) newfangled format. You might never see this stunning, rare old print projected after this retrospective, or if you do, it will look different—you will be different. And your neighborhood cinema might be closing, again. Cinema’s fleeting nature, fodder for endless thesis papers, think pieces, listicles, and personal decries of The End, mirrors the reality of our times, a climate of perpetual struggle against moral, material, and cultural entropy and disappearance. Cinema is filled with all kinds of goodbyes, but it is also a shelter from the cruel speed of the outside world. Through the physical and cerebral relationship to the screen that we develop, cinema generously offers us the opportunity to look closely at images and ponder how they might reveal hidden meanings, desires, dreams, or pasts. The images on screen even grant us the chance, if only momentarily, to resurrect a life, a time, or a place.
The narrative of Goodbye, Dragon Inn is as simple as its execution and effects are complex and beguiling. It mostly unfolds over the course of the Dragon Inn screening at the Fu-Ho—its concluding projection before the cinema shutters for good. We see and hear the film in progress, but the drama predominantly develops in still, long, hushed vignettes in the spaces around the screen: in the meager but motley audience, a Japanese tourist (Kiyonobu Mitamura) cruises for company through the darkened auditorium, the cinema’s winding, weatherworn halls, and the men’s room; veteran actors Shih Chun and Miao Tien (who is there with his grandson), both émigrés from Mainland China after the civil war and monumental figures in Taiwanese cinema, tearfully watch their own performances on screen, immersed in the sight of their temporarily exhumed past lives before running into each other in the dilapidated cinema lobby; a young ticket-taker (Chen Shiang-chyi) with a heavy leg brace wanders through the intimately familiar labyrinth of the cinema to which she has been a loyal custodian, trying to find the projectionist (Lee Kang-sheng) whom she’s never met, to give him a fortune cake in the shape of a peach—a common offering made in prayers to spirits and bodhisattvas at Buddhist temples—on this rainy, fateful night.
Without any didactic explanation and with minimal dialogue, Goodbye, Dragon Inn shows us how public spaces of film-watching become inevitably imbued with private emotions.
For Tsai, whose childhood recollections of going to the cinema with his grandparents are among his most cherished—they form a substratum of memories that has informed his filmmaking from the start—Goodbye, Dragon Inn is a sui generis act of worship for his medium, and the screen of the Fu-Ho Grand Theater is the altar to this ritual. Writer and scholar Giuliana Bruno has written astutely on numerous occasions that the screen first came into being during the Renaissance when people stretched pieces of canvas over windows to create ambiance in a room, or used them to create partitions between public and private spaces. Throughout its evolution, the screen has always borne a direct relationship to social experiences, concurrently delineating collective space and private perspective. In cinemas, the screen is that same canvas: a surface onto which images are projected and then reflected back to each viewer’s subjective, emotional vanishing points. This strange hybridized experience uniquely proffered by the screen and its surrounding spaces might at least partially explain the assertiveness with which some cinephiles insist on laying claim to their favorite seat in their cinemas: for all its intangibility, cinema is spellbinding because it makes you feel like you can possess a part of it. When, in a term put forth by Susan Sontag in her seminal 1996 New York Times article “The Decay of Cinema,” you “surrender” yourself to a film in a movie theater, it has arguably as much to do with what is on the screen as what is around the screen, and where you fit into it all.
Without any didactic explanation and with minimal dialogue, Goodbye, Dragon Inn shows us how public spaces of film-watching become inevitably imbued with private emotions. The clever mise en abyme of the screen within the screen—both exhibiting the same aspect ratio—is a voluptuous visual metaphor that forms a kind of fulcrum for the entire film. It makes us equally aware of what is and what isn’t on screen at any given moment. As Chen slowly perambulates through the darkened back halls, hidden stairwells, and nooks and crannies of the cinema that none of the filmgoers have ever been aware of, Tsai reveals how the most vital parts of the cinema are designed to be invisible to most, save for the screen—chiefly the projection booth behind the audience’s gaze, where films are unpacked and placed onto projection reels, but also all the inconspicuous spaces a print passes through from its moment of arrival, sometimes from far-flung locales at great cost for just one or two showings, to the point of its projection hitting the screen at showtime—and the unseen human labor that goes into a “perfect” film showing. This encompasses the research, print inspection, scheduling, planning, and publicizing; the consummate cleaning of the auditoriums between shows; and, most importantly, the invisible performance of film projection in the booth where, ideally, seamless changeovers are carried out by devoted, around-the-clock projectionists so that the illusion of film as a continuous moving picture may be sustained, and viewers may, per Sontag, have a chance to be “overwhelmed by the physical presence of the image.” In this expansive visual metaphor, the screen is also an uncanny border between the visible and the invisible, the told and untold myths of cinema.
This bifurcation is reflected in the film’s formal conception. The first half of Goodbye, Dragon Inn is essentially silent, save for the ambient sounds in and around the auditorium: the eerily familiar, sometimes amusing, sometimes aggravating disturbances from people in the audience (a pair of bare feet from someone in repose are rested on the back of a seat near someone else’s face, a heedless couple share an especially crunchy snack out of an exceedingly loud rustling plastic bag), and of course the film’s projection. This restraint is only broken when, 45 minutes in, a nameless filmgoer (played by Chen Chao-jung, one of Tsai’s regulars), spotted by the cruising Japanese tourist who follows him into a back hallway, asks: “Do you know this theater is haunted?” The conjuring of spirits by way of folk Buddhist rituals is a familiar sight in Tsai’s films, but none of his other films come as close to actually being a ghost story as Goodbye, Dragon Inn does.
What’s hidden by the screen and the structures of the theater that provide the film with its austere but surreal set pieces is not just spatial: it’s corporeal and spiritual. It has always been hard to speak about experiencing a superlative film screening without resorting to religious language of transcendence and rapture. Our bodies might be installed in rigid red velvet seats, but our minds are, in Sontag’s words, “kidnapped”—spirited away to far-off places and times. Perhaps this is why, in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, when the films of Hong Kong and Taiwan, experiencing major cultural shifts, took on a heightened degree of self-reflexivity—when, per Ackbar Abbas in his book Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, cinema became a “means of outflanking, or simply keeping pace with, a subject always on the point of disappearing”—the ghost film genre crisscrossed with melodrama. An example is Stanley Kwan’s Rouge (1987), which follows the spirit of a 1930s courtesan played by Anita Mui as she pays a visit to contemporary Hong Kong to find her long-lost lover, only to discover that everything familiar to her has been erased. Mui’s character, like a potential haunting in the Fu-Ho, provides a shorthand for what is no longer there or is on the verge of disappearing—a physical embodiment of absence.
Before making films, Tsai had his formal training in theater, ensconced in Greek tragedies and the works of Shakespeare, Henrik Ibsen, and Bertolt Brecht. The mise en abyme in Goodbye, Dragon Inn is an aesthetic distancing mechanism, not of cruel disavowal, but rather for creating space in which viewers can meander between the real-time unfolding of Tsai’s film, the various portrayals of spectatorship on screen, and previous memories of filmgoing—to negotiate our individual response to images on the screen(s). Tsai’s Brechtian remove does not preclude sentimentality: when Shih and Miao bump into each other in the lobby, one says: “I haven’t seen a movie in a long time,” and the other replies: “No one goes to the movies anymore, and no one remembers us anymore.” It’s a brief exchange that conjures up an entire world of emotions and memories that go unspoken but are nevertheless deeply felt. For the aging actors, as for us, the screen is also a border between past and present.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn is entirely lit by the assorted artificial lights in and around the cinema, and among the most striking images in the film are those of Chen’s ticket vendor interfacing with the cinema’s lights and screen: she peeks out of an entryway next to the projection, like Alice peering through a hidden door, momentarily breaking the illusion of three-dimensional depth on the flat surface of the screen; as she looks out at the auditorium from the inside of the screen, the projector light through the material’s tiny perforations casts a dazzling kaleidoscope of illuminations onto her face. (Incidentally, Ming Liang means “to illuminate.”) In these delicately conceived, deftly executed shots that amalgamate the literal and metaphorical, we are being asked to ruminate on the screen as a defining symbol of the collective social experience of cinema in a way that no other film ever has.
When Chen makes her wistful final exit from the Fu-Ho into a rainy night, the film’s first and only non-diegetic song emerges to accompany her outro: “I remember, under the moon / I remember, before the flowers / So much of the past lingers in my heart…Year after year I can’t let go…” The oldie sounds as out of time as the Fu-Ho looks in the streets of modern Taipei. We are reminded of the unique experience that moviegoing and move theaters offer of being simultaneously escapist and hyperlocal. We see that the old lit-up sign of the cinema was out there all along, but it’s easy to miss, lackluster from being neglected for decades. The Fu-Ho is going out of business—and one senses it’s been a long time coming—because it has been left behind by merciless seas of technological, cultural, and economic change.
As our collective experience of filmgoing dwindles, the shared big screen replaced by individual small screens on tablets and smartphones, the excessive proliferation of images in our milieu propagates to a point of complete saturation on various apps, platforms, and so on, but only in inverse relationship to our ability to make real meaning of them. That’s why it’s so heartbreaking when the lights finally go up in the Fu-Ho: the end of this exhumation ritual brings the admonition that nothing can make up for the loss of our communal-viewing context. Watching the big square fluorescent ceiling lights flicker in the auditorium, we are reminded that a film isn’t just 35mm stock wound onto reels; it is animated as a collective experience only through the act of people sitting in the theater watching a projection together, or in the past tense, in the memory banks of the people who were there at the screening. Within the physical edifice of the theater, represented by the Fu-Ho, is the idea of the cinema as a shelter from feelings of displacement, desolation, and disaffection—emotional qualities that Tsai’s cinema has an unparalleled way of addressing. A ceaseless feedback loop forms between the emotional and physical elements of filmgoing, and human experiences build up in screening spaces—even during the sparsely attended weekday matinees—adding up to the sum total of the life of a cinema.
The pensive slowness of Goodbye, Dragon Inn and of Tsai’s cinema—as embodied by Chen’s heavy footsteps, an antecedent to the director’s later multidisciplinary “Walker” series (including 2014’s Journey to the West, featuring Lee dressed as a monk, very slowly walking across various backdrops, inspired by the monk Xuanzang who brought Buddhist scriptures from India to China)—is a strategy of rebellion against spectacle for spectacle’s sake, the rapid torrents of uncontrollable environmental changes and disappearances, and a way to grieve for what is no longer there. “That’s why you don’t see computers in my films,” he has asserted, and “you’ll never find a Tsai Ming-liang picture on a plane.”
For all of the absurdity in Goodbye, Dragon Inn, the film feels like a hall of mirrors leading toward a kind of profound, ineffable truth about cinema—an object perfectly encapsulating the curious and enchanting experience of moviegoing. Part of that truth, as born out of Tsai’s own filmmaking, is that watching films is an integral part of preserving their material culture, which includes prints, projectors, screens, and of course movie theaters. Maybe there is a death drive within this sick eros of cinephilia that makes film lovers obsessed with declaring the end of their most beloved medium and viewing context—god knows there has been plenty of clamoring about that over the years. But the looking glass of Goodbye, Dragon Inn can be seen as half-full or half-empty, depending on how you view it.
Ultimately, it is astonishing to know that Tsai’s own productions of What Time Is It There? (2001) and Goodbye, Dragon Inn helped to keep the real-life Fu-Ho in business. He first chanced upon the cinema in his search for locations outside of Taipei in 2000. The old, run-down theater was still miraculously—but only barely—hanging on. After shooting part of What Time Is It There? inside the auditorium, he held the premiere of the finished film there, bringing more life to the theater than it had seen in ages. The following year, he rented the cinema to shoot Goodbye, Dragon Inn. The creation of Tsai’s films really did manage to exhume the moribund movie theater. He recalled experiencing a sense of déjà vu when shooting there among the decaying red velvet stadium seats, yellowing walls, and weathered surfaces. Like many cinephiles, Tsai seems particularly predisposed to nostalgia and sentimentality, and movie theaters had been a mainstay in his development from a young age. But he was uprooted from his native Kuching, Malaysia, to Taipei at age 20, and when he returned years later, he found the cinemas of his youth were all gone. While making What Time Is It There? and Goodbye, Dragon Inn in his mid-40s, the loss of these haunts and his personal displacement halfway through life, as well as the unprecedented rapid changes he saw in his everyday environment in Taipei, formed a void—as symbolized by the closing of the Fu-Ho—that these films seemed to acknowledge directly.
As I write this, we are eight months and counting into a global shutdown unprecedented in our modern world. It is the longest that I’ve gone without visiting a movie theater in my adult life. Even as a child, I spent long afternoons sitting in the darkened auditorium of a national children’s cinema in China where my grandmother was the dutiful manager, taking in epic Maoist operas, which at that time were perceived as enchanting magic lantern shows full of moving shapes and colors. That cinema’s smells—a curious admixture of iodine and the bathroom, and, well, humanity—and textures are deeply imprinted in my memory along with the other cinemas where I’ve had profound viewing experiences. In a time when we have no choice but to live in the negative spaces left by past experiences in currently shuttered cinemas, to a career filmgoer, there’s nothing that makes more sense than to watch or think about Goodbye, Dragon Inn. •