It's raining in Taipei again. Anyone familiar with Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang's work knows that his world is a wet one, where rain pours down constantly on decrepit concrete buildings, faucets drip, urinals overflow, and puddles are everywhere.
In Goodbye, Dragon Inn, the decrepit building is the Fu-Ho Theater, a large movie palace that on this, its last night of operation, is showing the 1966 Chinese kung-fu classic Dragon Inn. At first glance, the theater is packed with people. At second glance, it's almost deserted, a strange mystery that leads to the first line of dialog, which comes along more than half an hour into the film: "You know this theater is haunted." What we have here, among other things, is a ghost story, Tsai's take on the belief of superstitious Chinese people that all movie theaters are haunted.
The few people inside the Fu-Ho include the ticket girl (Chen Shiang-Chyi), who walks with a pronounced limp slowly slowly slowly through endless takes and climbs stairs slowly slowly slowly up to the projection room. She hopes to drop off half her steamed bun for the projectionist (Lee Kan-sheng, who appears as some version of the same character in all of Tsai's films). He's not there, however, so she leaves the bun, perhaps as a token of love, and clumps back down the several flights of stairs before doing a patrol of the bathrooms. Believe it or not, this is among the more action-packed of Tsai's films.
In the theater, a young man has come in to seek shelter from the rain but finds himself annoyed by other patrons. There's the little kid making noise, a couple of old men who sit way too close to him, a couple who are sloppily and noisily eating their way through their dinner, a pair of bare feet that pop up from behind and rest on the seat next to him, and a woman who devours a huge pile of seeds, casting the shells onto the floor.
Eventually he makes his way to the bathroom, where three men join him at a row of urinals and they stand there together, in silence, for close to two minutes of screen time. An encounter in a back room reveals that the Fu-Ho may be a gay cruising spot, and it's here that we hear the comment about the theater being haunted.
Eventually the screening of Dragon Inn ends, and in one long static take we watch the ticket girl clean the theater, and then we watch the empty theater for more than two minutes. No, the film isn't stuck in the projector. This is the Tsai style, and you'll either love it or hate it.
Why love it? Because Tsai knows how to visualize a feeling of abject loneliness and loss. All his films are to some extent about the dehumanizing effects of urban life, how two people, such as the ticket girl and the projectionist, can work together for years and yet never speak, how even her love can only be expressed through a steamed bun of all things. Cinephiles may also want to ponder the message that despite the fact that going to the movies is a communal act, it's essentially a solitary experience, an interaction between you and the screen no matter how many people are or aren't sitting around you.
That is, if you ever go to the movies. As the two old men stroll out of the theater, we learn they are actually Tien Miao and Shih Chun, two of the stars of Dragon Inn. They've come to watch themselves and remember the past. "No one goes to the movies anymore," one comments ruefully. He walks home holding the hand of his young grandson. Perhaps they'll pop in a DVD when they get there.
The DVD adds Tsai's short film The Skywalk is Gone, an epilogue to his film What Time is it There?
Aka Bu San; Good Bye, Dragon Inn.
Hello, creepy person behind the door!