' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...Goodbye, Dragon Inn

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Some Drivel On...Goodbye, Dragon Inn

I saw  “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” (2003) for the first time at the Music Box Theatre, as part of their Back On The Big Screen series, celebrating our return to the theater after (the first stage of?) COVID-19. That might sound a little Magic of the Movies™-ish, but despite being set in a movie theatre, “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” has less in common with, God, I don’t know, “The Majestic” than another movie in the Music Box series: “Days of Heaven.” True, “Days of Heaven” takes place almost entirely outdoors and and “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” takes almost exclusively indoors but the spirit of, respectively, Terrence Malick and Ming-liang Tsai’s movies are nevertheless similar. Indeed, a few days after watching “Goodbye, Dragon Inn”, in one of those rare moments reminding you of social media’s occasionally potent value, I stumbled upon a Tweet by Sujewa Ekanayake, director of the forthcoming “The Secret Society for Slow Romance”, observing that “Minimalist composition in movies, where it is one or few characters in a vast, empty landscape, may appeal to us at some level because it reflects the vastness and the silence of the universe.” He could have been talking about both movies. 

Ming-liang Tsai declares his intent immediately with a low-angled shot peering down a dark alley, toward the movie theatre’s exterior, as rain patters the cement. A figure hurries past, dodging puddles, and enters the theater. The camera, though, does not follow him nor immediately cut to an interior shot. No, Tsai holds the shot as-is, inundating us in the rhythm of the raindrops, advising that here, in “Goodbye, Dragon Inn”, the camera will hang on longer than we might be conditioned to expect. Yes, “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” is about the closure – or, temporary closure – of this movie theatre, but it does not explore this in narrative terms. There is no narrative. It is a movie told through images, the framing of them, the editing of them, the choice of where to look and where not to look. It might not be casually inviting you in, as a more mainstream movie might do, but asking you to surrender yourself to it anyway, the overriding purpose of any movie, really, arthouse, mainstream, or otherwise, which is the magic of the movies.

The opening image of “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” is of the theatre’s movie screen, right down front and up close, close enough that we are both aware of the boundary between fiction and reality and how near we are to that boundary dissolving. The next shot is a wide one, of the crowd watching the movie, delineating that boundary more clearly while also summarizing cinema as a communal experience. The third shot is from behind a curtain peering out at the screen, evoking a point-of-view though whose point-of-view we do not know. Perhaps it’s the cashier (Chen Shiang-chyi) we eventually meet; perhaps it’s the Japanese tourist (Mitamura Kiyonobu) who enters the theatre as the movie starts; perhaps it’s the usherette in Edward Hopper’s 1939 painting New York Movie. I mean, why not? We eventually learn the theater is haunted, so why can’t the usherette be permeating this place too? If some have compared that Usherette to the disinterested barmaid in A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, in his book “The Whole Equation”, my man David Thomson sees this woman in a more absolute light, either standing in a paradise or a prison.

“Goodbye, Dragon Inn” feels a little less like a cinema paradise and a little more like a prison, both isolating and aggravating. When the cashier is on screen, Tsai emphasizes her loneliness, tromping with a leg brace that echoes down empty hallways, leaving a steamed bun as a romantic invitation for the projectionist who refuses to appear. When the Japanese tourist is on screen, Tsai comically exaggerates the everyday annoyances of moviegoing in how the character is haunted by ghosts of rude movie theatre patrons past even as his gradually self-evident unsuccessful cruising aspirations underline his lonesomeness too. Two men, meanwhile, watching the martial arts movie on the screen, 1967’s “Dragon Inn”, we realize are in the movie itself, meeting in the lobby afterwards, more melancholy than mirthful, remarking it has been a long time since they have gone to see a movie, seeming to suggest a dreary future where art is inconsequential except to the few who make it. 

We never get a full look at the theatre until after “Dragon Inn” concludes, those stark white lights jarring you out of the dreamworld, making me think about modern theatres and their predilection for immediately transitioning to in-theater music when a show ends, almost as if being made to sit there in silence with nothing but your thoughts is too grave to bear. But there is no in-house music in “Goodbye, Dragon Inn”, just the sound of the cashier’s leg brace and dustpan as she goes up and down the aisles and through the rows, sweeping up what mess there is. It feels as if she has been stranded in the vastness and silence of the universe, the movie theatre offering no refuge at all. 

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