Pop Paradise Lost
By Nick Pinkerton
Writing on Only You [Tsai’s 2011 triptych theatrical piece], critic Andrew Chan notes the debt that Tsai owes to ‘the bygone era of pop culture that influenced him as a kid – one that he came into contact with as symbols of dreamy Chinese sophistication on the Malaysian airwaves.’ In this, too, a parallel with Terence Davies is appropriate – but rather than the likes of Cole Porter, or Debbie Reynolds’s ‘Tammy’, used in The Long Day Closes, Tsai looks back to a lost pop paradise soundtracked by Chang, Lee, Li and the other Singing Stars, including his father’s favourite, Zhou Xuan.
Following the model of studio-era Hollywood, Hong Kong and Taiwan’s entertainment industries have long placed a premium on synergy, cultivating triple-threat stars with movie, television and Mando- or Cantopop careers, and marketing movies with tie-in albums – much like the Reynolds song, which appeared in 1957’s Tammy and the Bachelor, and topped the Billboard chart for five weeks. As Universal-International handled Reynolds in the West, so Cathay handled Chang in the East.
Putting ourselves in the place of a sensitive young aesthete with a taste for beauty growing up in Kuching in the early sixties, it’s not difficult to imagine the appeal of these songs drifting out into the city’s balmy nights, or of the films seen in the city’s cinemas, films sometimes featuring the very same songs, the result of strategies that made possible these monocultural Gesamtkunstwerks. (Indeed, Tsai credits the Shaw Brothers films for introducing him to tracks like his favourite oldie, ‘Lover’s Tears’, with lyrics again courtesy Chen Dea-yi.) To this we can add the intangible allure that ‘dreamy Chinese sophistication’ might pose to the child of still recently settled immigrants abroad – and the degree to which, in the politically divided Greater China, popular culture has served to provide a unifying sense of home in the absence of an agreed-upon representative regime.
This function is illustrated with enormous sensitivity and feeling in one of the last great films of pre-Handover Hong Kong, Peter Chan’s 1996 Comrades: Almost a Love Story, which follows Mainlanders played by Maggie Cheung and Leon Lai from their arrival in Hong Kong to their immigration to New York City. Throughout their travels, they are followed by the music of Teresa Teng, the Taiwanese-born chanteuse who was a pan-Asian icon for nearly thirty years, beginning with a prize-winning performance in 1964 of a song from The Love Eterne and ending in 1995 with her premature death in Thailand. Of the peculiar ubiquity of Teng throughout the Chinese world, New Yorker critic Hua Hsu writes:
There’s [a] popular saying: Wherever there are Chinese people, there is Teresa Teng’s music. I never appreciated her symbolism as a child, back when her music seemed soft and ubiquitous. But it’s not hard to imagine how Teng’s songs about love and distance spoke to the various migrations and political estrangements throughout the Chinese-speaking world. For immigrants throughout the Chinese diaspora, her music was a reminder of their journeys, an excuse to indulge in nostalgia, three or four minutes at a time.
Such an indulgence concludes Goodbye, Dragon Inn. ‘Can’t let go, can’t let go / I’ll remember with longing forever’ – the plaint in Yao Lee’s voice carries with it a yearning for a remembered past wholeness, a holistic unity seemingly now cut off forever. Like those of many successful pop songs, the lyrics are flexible enough to be suited to almost any listener’s personal use while the delivery renders them as achingly personal. They speak to romantic disappointment, but to something more as well, for as Chen passes out of the frame, the shot lingers a while longer on the exterior of the Fu-Ho, as if to address Yao Lee’s longing towards the old cinema itself.
Tsai Ming-liang was not alone among Chinese filmmakers in being pursued by the persistent, plaintive memory of the pop culture of his youth. Tsui Hark – like Tsai, a Chinese kid raised abroad – had grown up knowing his ancestral homeland through the movies he saw in Saigon cinemas; in 1992 he released New Dragon Gate Inn, his remake of King Hu’s classic, and then returned to the source in 2011 with Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. In 2000, Ang Lee, old habitué of the Chuang Mei Theatre, had an international box office smash with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – a film that owes an enormous debt to Hu, particularly A Touch of Zen, from which Lee remade and adapted the famous high-flying bamboo forest fight. In the midst of a crisis period for Hong Kong and Taiwanese cinemas, Tsui and Lee’s films sought to channel the spirit of the sixties wuxia – to make ’em like they used to, the way nobody does anymore. Tsai’s film doesn’t propose a full-bodied resurrection as possible, but rather describes the pop past as a phantom presence: Do you know this theatre is haunted?
The idea of the haunted city, and the persistence of a city’s past in the present, possesses a number of films from Greater China at the turn of the century, particularly those being made in pre-Handover Hong Kong; Stanley Kwan’s Rouge (1987), in which the ghost of a courtesan who suicided in thirties Hong Kong reappears in the unrecognisable contemporary city, is one archetypal example. For Ackbar Abbas, writing in his Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, the figure of the ghost is a means to discuss the particular complexities of Hong Kong’s vaporous, ungraspable cultural space. What, then, might Tsai be up to summoning cinematic spirits in the peculiar space that is Taipei?
A reference to ‘hauntology’ may be useful here. The term was introduced by Jacques Derrida in his 1993 Spectres of Marx, used to describe the continuing, ghostly presence of Marx’s ideas in a world supposedly freed forevermore by the forces of neoliberal capitalism – in which the promise of a jet-setting future extended by films like Air Hostess had supposedly been fulfilled – to explain the degree to which, even after 1989, Marx’s spectre of communism continued to haunt both Europe and points beyond. In the mid-2000s, the phrase was adapted by writers Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds to discuss a loose confederation of artists, mostly UK-based musicians on the Ghost Box label – pronounced by Reynolds as ‘consummate scavengers [who] trawl through charity shops, street markets and jumble sales for delectable morsels of decaying culture-matter.’
“NOBODY WILL MAKE FILMS LIKE DJIBRIL. HE WAS UNIQUE, AND HE IS GONE. WHAT IS REMAINING ARE SOME SEEDS THAT HE PUT IN THE FILM GROUND.”
The sound of hauntology, as limned out by Fisher and Reynolds, is a corrupted one, born of the very fallibility of analogue recording mediums, which grow old and acquire wear and tear, just as we humans do – the process recounted in Tsai and Lee’s long collaboration. ‘Unlike digital formats,’ Reynolds writes, ‘analogue degrades through overuse: each listener kills the sound she loves.’ As he notes, the title of the seventh studio album by hauntology-adjacent American musician Ariel Pink – Worn Copy, issued the same year as Goodbye, Dragon Inn – is here relevant. Pink’s sensibility is grounded in eighties Day-Glo pop, but the sound is ever so slightly off, bent, giving the impression of a tune half-heard and half-remembered, encountered drifting from a stranger’s open window or bleeding through the wall of a neighbouring room. (The muffled, muted soundtrack of Hu’s Dragon Inn in Tsai’s film suggests a possible parallel.)
Just as each listener kills the sound she loves, the twentieth-century cinemagoer was the witness to a process of a slow dying. You never watch the same print twice, and a film reel’s every passage through a projector adds a degree of attrition and patina, until you arrive at the mangled specimens so well evoked by the American critic Manny Farber in his ‘Underground Films’: ‘prints that seem overgrown with jungle moss, soundtracks infected with hiccups.’ While Tsai doesn’t incorporate the physical decay of the film element into Goodbye, Dragon Inn – as does, say, Bill Morrison in his 2002 Decasia, assembled from strips of nitrate film in varying states of disintegration – he does break up Dragon Inn, partitioning it into unsatisfying fragments, letting its voice be muted by the cinema walls, the teasing and ultimate disintegration of its narrative pleasures amounting to yet another failure of consummation.
Contrasting hauntological acts whose work incorporates and comments on history against retro-pop artists who produce reasonable simulacra of past styles, Reynolds distinguishes hauntology for its ‘ache of longing – for history itself’ in the face of an ahistorical pop present. That ‘ache’ figures into the definition of a word that has often been associated with Tsai. ‘It’s delicate, but potent… in Greek, nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound. It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone’ – this comes courtesy the fictional character Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm, delivered during a campaign for a Kodak Carousel slide projector in a 2007 episode of Mad Men, part of the wave of prestige television that we’ve been told again and again has dethroned cinema in the public imagination. The programme’s success exemplified the phenomenon that is also its subject: the supremacy of ballyhoo in American life, or perhaps the life of the developed world as a whole.
Nostalgia can be heartstrings-tugging a sales pitch. It can be an inspiration, looking to the past from an unendurable present to find possible futures not taken. It can be an entirely regressive force, responsible for the present morass of American popular culture, in which proven IP are rehashed ad nauseam for an audience consigned to eternal adolescence, a landscape cluttered with over-familiar talismans like the virtual reality OASIS of Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2018). In Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Delany writes of nostalgia that it ‘presupposes an uncritical confusion between the first, the best, and the youthful gaze (through which we view the first and the best) with which we create origins.’
The Greeks that Draper cites thought nostalgia a sickness, and certainly there is something more than a little morbid in the latter-day works of nostalgist par excellence Woody Allen, whose contemporary young people are little old men and women who venerate the popular culture of the Depression-era America into which Allen was born, and its bygone analogue textures – like Christina Ricci in Anything Else (2003) condemning the ‘sterilised’ sound of CDs, or Timothée Chalamet’s hysterically monikered Gatsby Welles in A Rainy Day in New York (2019) announcing, ‘I just like to watch old movies and play my vinyl.’ Quentin Tarantino, a known Anything Else booster and Shaw Bros. superfan (who cribbed their logo for his 2003 vintage genre-movie bricolage piece Kill Bill: Volume 1), has clout enough to have established himself as a one-man bulwark against the rising digital tide – where Tsai has his modest Café Corridor, Tarantino has his 300-seat New Beverly Cinema revival house in Los Angeles, showing a bill of 35mm and 16mm double features, many from the filmmaker’s own collection.
Though it seems today to anticipate the phenomenon of digital cinema, Goodbye, Dragon Inn cannot be counted as a response to it. Tsai’s film never directly addresses the matter of format, which in Taipei in 2003 would have been no issue outside of competition from the MTV trade, the film vs. digital debate not having yet begun in earnest. For his part, Tsai seems to have no difficulty envisaging a cinema without acetate. Stray Dogs, his first digital feature, makes room for multiple long takes that go beyond the capacity of a 1,000-foot magazine, and he attributes its final nocturnal images to the ability of digital to shoot in low-light environs. In his ease with adopting new technology, he differs from such varied staunchly pro-film figures as celluloid supremacist Tarantino and digital sceptic Babette Mangolte, who sees a fundamental problem in the format’s ability to mark duration – as Tsai’s work, especially the Walker films, endeavour to do. She writes, ‘Even if a film isn’t creating an experiential sense of time, it can evoke it, but the digital film is at a disadvantage in this regard.’ For Tarantino, quoted in 2012, the inferiority of digital presentation is axiomatic, because digital projection is nothing more than ‘television in public’.
For Tsai, one suspects, the crucial part of that equation is the ‘public’ – the nostalgia for moviegoing as a shared experience, at a moment when it sometimes seems our viewing habits have in a little over a century gone full circle from the solitary experience of the nickelodeon Kinetoscope to the laptop or Oculus Rift. We all have our different ways of holding on, or of surrendering to the onrushing flow of time. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Goodbye, Dragon Inn, for example, are both films made by ethnically Chinese men born in the mid-fifties and based at one time or another in Taiwan, but where Lee attempts to channel the spirit of Hu, even casting Come Drink With Me’s ‘Golden Swallow’ Cheng Pei-pei in a key role, Tsai ruefully acknowledges that you can’t go home again. Dragon Inn has not changed, but the audience has. The transnational cultural community to which Tsai belonged in his youth, made up of residents of a China of the mind, still exists, but its centre has shifted again, from Hong Kong to Beijing, and many of its movies have metastatised into blockbusters made on the Hollywood scale, usually with even less charm.
But in Goodbye, Dragon Inn we encounter a present haunted by the pop past – not only that, but by a past envisioning of the past, exemplified by the double nostalgia of ‘Can’t Let Go’, a longing for an antique expression of longing, reaching for a happier time. It is a farewell to cinema – or to one definition of cinema, as well as to generations of Greater Chinese popular culture now fallen out of reach, to the Shaw Brothers and the Seven Great Singing Stars. It tributes the communities whose dreams were furnished and decorated by these bright, melancholy pop products, and the temples in which they convened, the movie houses that were expiring en masse as the millennium turned. And in making this tender parting gesture, Tsai poses a pretty dilemma to himself and to cinema at large: where do you go after you’ve said goodbye?
This is an excerpt from Nick Pinkerton’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn, available to order from the Metrograph Bookstore.