October 20, 2003

Goodbye, Dragon Inn

Starring Chen Shiang-chyi and Kiyonobu Mitamura

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Goodbye, Dragon Inn can be best described as Cinema Paradiso re-imagined by Tsai Ming-liang. Not that Goodbye is a heart-warming, coming-of-age epic that spans decades. As a matter of fact, the film is very much a Tsai movie about urban alienation. But despite their vast differences, Goodbye and Paradiso both celebrate love and nostalgia for the old cinema. Because this is one of Tsai’s less elaborate films, it will put knowing smiles on some while leaving others scratching their heads.

The film opens as a young Japanese man (Kiyonobu Mitamura) stumbles into a run-down repertoire theatre in rain-soaked Taipei. A screening of King Hu’s 1966 film Dragon Inn is about to start, and the box-office attendant (Chen Shiang-chyi) is dragging her braced leg around the theatre’s dark corridors to deliver a steamed bun to the projectionist. Inside the auditorium, a few audience members are scattered here and there. The Japanese man finds himself distracted by the annoying antics of fellow audience members, and switches his seat a few times. Finally, he begins exploring outside the auditorium, where a stranger warns him that the theatre is haunted.

Once the set-up is established, Tsai begins to toy with the expectations of his fans. What follows is almost a by-the-numbers showcase of Tsai’s favourite motifs. A series of long takes containing rainy exterior, leaky interior, and cruising gay men follow one another with deadpan precision. Like a wink and a nod to his fans, Tsai saves the appearance of his long-time alter ego Lee Kang-sheng until near the very end of the film.

The film then switches gear from a comedy of manners to a sombre tribute, as we find two elderly men in the audience intently watching the film. “They don’t make movies like this anymore,” one of them sighed outside the theatre. It should be noted that the actors who portray these two men, Shih Chun and Tsai regular Miao Tian, both made their silver-screen debuts in Dragon Inn.

After the screening of Goodbye at the Vancouver International Film Festival, Tsai explained to the audience that he drew his inspiration for the film from the theatre where it’s set. The Fu-Ho Grand Theatre was closed and about to be demolished, and the writer-director rented it to document its faded glory. The film certainly evokes powerful nostalgia for the movie going experience of yesteryear. But what’s so brilliant about it is, unlike Giuseppe Tornatore in the estimable Cinema Paradiso, Tsai manages to stir up such emotions without showing a teary demolition derby and with an economical running time of only 82 minutes.

© 2003 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.