Friday, December 18, 2020

Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn

At least Taipei's Fu-Ho theater had a final night. That is more than dozens of movie theaters will be able to say, having shuttered during the CCP-virus pandemic. Whether the sparse patrons and two remaining employees make the most of it is debatable, but there is something special about the last screening that flickers during Tsai Ming-liang’s 4K-restored Goodbye, Dragon Inn, which opens virtually today, via the Metrograph.

The Fu-Ho’s final film will be King Hu’s classic
Dragon Inn, a film that continues to grow in significance. Tsui Hark’s produced Raymond Lee’s remake, [New] Dragon Inn, and then helmed his own pseudo-remake-reboot, The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. In between, Tsai gave viewers a chance to watch a good chunk of the 1965 original, over the shoulders of his characters, as the camera tours through the theater.

He definitely takes a minimalist approach to narrative, but there is a lot implied about the characters’ backstories and circumstances that is left expressly unstated. Throughout the film, the lonely manager limps through the theater, looking for the projectionist, to give him a steamed bun. Meanwhile, a Japanese tourist wanders through the theater’s stairwells and passages, in search of a hook-up. Instead, he finds the projectionist, who tells him the theater is haunted, which is surely true figuratively and perhaps even literally, given the weird behavior of one noisy patron. However, at least three ticket buyers are there to really watch the wuxia masterpiece: two of the original stars, Shih Chun and Miao Tien, as well as the latter’s grandson.

At times,
Goodbye, Dragon Inn could almost pass for Slow Cinema, but it is more accessible than that, due to film noir-ish atmosphere and the hint of the supernatural (not to mention the martial arts action of Dragon Inn). Liao Pen-jung’s nocturnal street-light and projector-lit cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. Plus, the appearances of Shih and Miao really crank up the nostalgia. They were terrific in the 1965 film and they are great again here.

Of course, Tsai’s constant collaborator Lee Kang-sheng is present and once again doing plenty of walking as the projectionist. Yet, even though she has no dialogue, Chen Shiang-chyi (another Tsai regular) poignantly portrays the leg-brace wearing manager through expressive body language.

You do not have to be a cineaste to appreciate the faded glory of the Fu-Ho and similar movie palaces that have vanished in favor of multiplexes. Obviously, Tsai’s elegy to the movie-going experience is deliberately being re-released at a timely moment. The power of suggestion is potent throughout the film, but it is still a quiet film that can have a lulling effect. (It is probably just as well the Fu-Ho didn’t screen
A Touch of Zen, because Goodbye would then be twice as long.) It is pleasant to explore the wonderful old theater, but 80-some minutes is definitely long enough. Still, if visual style is what matters most to you, then you should catch-up to (or re-watch) Goodbye, Dragon Inn, in its restored glory, when it opens today (12/18), through the Metrograph’s virtual cinema.