Pity the fool who goes to Goodbye, Dragon Inn expecting to see a rock-’em sock-’em kinetic whirlwind of swords and fists à la King Hu’s original Lung Mun Kar Chuan. That 1966 Hong Kong martial-arts costumer, known in the US as Dragon Inn, is justly famed for its widescreen sweep, nonstop action, and ancient Chinese pageantry, as well as for its dashing woman warrior, played at a breakneck pace by Feng Hsu. By contrast, the pace of Tsai Ming-Liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn is at full stop — possibly the slo-oo-owest movie you’ll see this year. That’s because, despite its title, it’s not a kung-fu actioner at all, but an art movie.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn‘s woman warrior is the cashier at the Fu-Ho Grand Theater in Taipei, Taiwan — an immense, rundown, leaky movie palace showing King Hu’s old Dragon Inn one rainy night to a restless, disengaged audience of maybe a dozen souls. The cashier (played by Chen Shiang-Chyi), who walks with a painful-looking limp, mostly sits by herself in the lonely box office, picking at a siopao she keeps in a steamer and occasionally venturing into the cavernous, spooky theater on errands. When she starts down one of the long, dark corridors, the camera, at the other end, stays on her every step of the way — it’s that kind of movie. We can usually hear her coming long before we see her. There’s a projectionist at the theater (Lee Kang-Sheng), and it’s obvious the cashier likes him (she leaves half of the siopao for him in the booth), but he makes himself scarce when he hears her clomping his way, so there’s not much repartee between them. In fact, there are barely a half dozen lines of dialogue from anyone in the 82-minute running time.
While the cashier is out of her box office, a lone Japanese tourist wanders in out of the rain and sits down to watch the movie, and it looks as if there finally might be some narrative incident. The guy (played by Mitamura Kiyonobu) is obviously cruising the other patrons, trying to make contact. He seems undeterred by the stinky bare feet on top of the seat next to his, or the loud eating noises, or the other moviegoers’ indifference to him, and when he can’t get any reaction in the seats, he stands at the men’s room urinal forever and lingers in the corridors like a somnambulating Pee-Wee Herman, to no effect.
What’s the matter with these people? Why are they such a bunch of zombies? Then one of the patrons addresses the tourist: “Do you know this theater is haunted?” and suddenly it all snaps into place. Everyone in the theater, with the possible exceptions of the tourist, the cashier, and the projectionist, is a ghost. You can tell all your moviehouse horror stories — the gay cruisers and assorted vermin at the old Strand on Market Street in San Francisco; the dirty diapers left on seats and huge bags of pistachios at the World in SF; the night the brick wall collapsed into the auditorium of the Strand Theater in Crawfordsville, Indiana; the mice parading up and down the aisles of the Michael Todd in Chicago’s Loop, etc. — but a haunted movie palace! That’s perfect. Writer-director Tsai gets to have his cake and eat it too, making a subdued, deep-dish art film (Last Year at Dragon-Bad?) out of an essentially horror-movie subject. Instead of shock cuts and decapitations, we get a deadly slow, freighted-with-significance ode to the shared experience of going off to dreamland with a group of strangers in a large dark room.
Filmmaker Tsai, a native of Malaysia who evidently grew up watching matinees in huge theaters like the Fu-Ho Grand, has specialized in quiet, faintly elliptical portraits of urban disconnectedness in such Taiwanese productions as Vive l’Amour (in which a real-estate agent interacts with squatters in a vacant condo), The River (a quirky family coping with a leak in the ceiling), and The Hole (apartment dwellers communicate through a hole in the floor). His motto is: When in doubt, hold that shot. Isolation and estrangement are his bread and butter, not to mention leaking water. So when we see the Japanese tourist cringing every time the woman behind him cracks some peanuts or crawls around searching for her lost shoe, that’s the level of human interaction we’re in for — wordless groping, stifled desires. Instead of the pathos of Cinema Paradiso or The Last Picture Show, Tsai’s brand of nostalgia offers us the relatively friendly spirits of aging actors Miao Tien and Chen Chao-Jung, stars of the original Dragon Inn, who watch the movie in the sad old theater (Miao in the company of a little boy, presumably a relative), and then bump into each other for a brief reminiscence in the lobby after the show. Says one: “No one goes to movie theaters anymore.”
Tsai used the Fu-Ho Grand as a setting in his 2001 drama What Time Is It There?, and later, when he learned it was scheduled for demolition, rented it for one last screening as the location of this melancholy meditation. He lingers lovingly over the old place, cherishing its decay. One of the film’s last shots is a full two-minute take of the empty auditorium and its stadium-style, extremely banked rows of red seats, with the lights up — the epitome of a ’60s-era road show house. When the lights are down, it’s nothing but an empty, dark barn where shadows flit silently. Again and again, our quick, bracing glimpses of the old Dragon Inn threaten to overpower the deadly-hushed mood of the front story, like those scenes in movies where another movie is playing in a theater, and you’d rather keep watching the movie within the movie than continue with the one you’re stuck with.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn (made in 2003) played the 2004 San Francisco International Film Festival, where presumably more than one audience member went away scratching his head and mumbling under his breath. Ideally, you should see it more than once, if only to adjust to Tsai’s rhythms and the furtive spell of the seedy cinema. The Pacific Film Archive is showing it exactly once, this Thursday at 5:30 p.m., as part of a miniseries of overlooked foreign films called “A Theater Near You” — an ironic reference in this case, since Goodbye, Dragon Inn hasn’t a ghost of a chance of being commercially distributed to theaters. See it at the PFA first, then check out the home video version. For more info, go to BAMPFA.berkeley.edu