If Andy Warhol's Empire (1964) is your idea of a fun night out at the movies, then Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Bu san, 2003) is just for you. However, anyone hoping this tale of a Taipei movie theater's final performance might be something like an Asian Cinema Paradiso or Last Picture Show is in for 82 minutes of mind-numbing somnambulism.
There's a fine line between the hypnotic and the interminable, and in some respects this style of filmmaking is as subjective and personal in its response as is film comedy. This review is decidedly in the minority. Director Ming-liang Tsai's ultra-minimalist style has won over a great many critics; Rotten Tomatoes helpfully reports almost 80% of online reviews for the film have been favorable. Partly this is an issue of taste: this critic finds the films of Andrei Tarkovsky somewhat interesting but also deadly dull, while other writers declare him a genius. Goodbye, Dragon Inn (actually, the title reads Good bye dragon inn onscreen) is in this same basic category, with some additional and obvious influence from French New Wavers and minimalist pioneers like Jim Jarmusch. This critic loves most of Jarmusch's wonderfully deadpan, perceptive films, but that doesn't mean a legion of imitators from around the world is necessarily a good thing. Jarmusch's influence has spread like the Avian Flu throughout Asia and in Japan, for instance, a country that has especially embraced his work, a lot of very bad arty-type movies have resulted.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn is set at the Fu-Ho Grand Theater, a dying showplace playing King Hu's 1966 martial arts extravaganza Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Long men ke zhen) to an almost empty house. There, a young Japanese Man (Kiyonobu Mitamura), has apparently wandered in hoping to pick up a man for a little sex. The other is an unnamed Ticket Woman (Shiang-chyi Chen), who walks with a severe limp. The movie mostly follows the two of them, he as he tries unsuccessfully to entice the theater's Projectionist (Kang-sheng Lee) and others, she while laboriously - very laboriously - limping up and down long flights of stairs to inspect the urinals, check the leaky roof, and so forth. Not much else happens. She mulls over, cuts and eventually eats a mammoth Chinese bao (bun), wraps the leftovers in plastic, but mostly stares at nothing in particular.
Except for the movie-within-the-movie, there's almost no dialog at all, maybe three of four lines in all. The first line doesn't even occur until the film is more than half over. The actors have also been instructed to show almost no expression of any sort; people shuffle from one seat to another like the living dead, and this imposed blankness - no dialogue, no reaction to anything around them - soon becomes archly artificial. There's no camera movement, either, except for a single shot. Shots generally run between 45-90 seconds (I counted. What else was there to do?), but near the end of the film there's an excruciating shot of the empty auditorium that runs more than five minutes. Many shots begin with an empty room or hallway. Some time later a person or two will shuffle in, maybe light up a cigarette, and shuffle out, leaving the viewer with an empty room again to gaze at for a while before the next shot begins. Hitchcock's Rope it's not.
This kind of, to put it nicely, methodical pacing can work wonderfully with the right material, but not so here. If there's a point to the stupefying banality of a woman flushing toilets, long gazes at the back of someone's head and the like, it has escaped me. Some critics have called Goodbye, Dragon Inn, "an elegy for the communal experience of cinema-going" (Sean Axmaker, Seattle Post-Intelligencer) and that "Each frame is a photograph used to memorialize the texture of every ancient, crumbling crevice" (George Wu, CultureVulture), but if that's true, this reviewer would much rather see a documentary about old movie theaters or something on the plight of Taiwan/Hong Kong's film industry. The Fu-Ho Grand Theater is positively oozing with atmosphere, but that's not enough to sustain a feature-length film. Neither is the appearance of Shih Chun and the late Tien Miao at the Fu-Ho, who watch themselves onscreen in the nearly 40-year-old movie, then after it's over mourn the fact that "No one goes to the movies anymore." Maybe it's a cheap shot to point to Goodbye, Dragon Inn as a reason for this declining attendance, but it's true.
Ultimately, what's the point? An exercise in form? To what end? Tsai almost dares his audience to grow impatient, to not "get it," and risk missing the bus to the land of the fashionably hip.
A.O. Scott in The New York Times describes Tsai as "the most Euclidean of directors, a master of geometry whose films are both oblique and acute. He captures some of the essential textures of contemporary urban life -- the loneliness and boredom, the longing that permeates even the most routine encounters, the collisions and coincidences -- with a deadpan dexterity that may remind you of Buster Keaton or Samuel Beckett." This reviewer saw a fat emperor with no clothes on.
Maybe some critics were lured by the Asian exoticness of it all. People in general and people who love movies in particular are fascinated seeing how other cultures watch movies, and issues of "spectatorship" are a big topic among film theorists today. But transpose the setting and what have you got? Would critics react the same way to a movie following a Times Square audience watching Death Wish 4: The Crackdown?
Video & Audio
Wellspring's DVD of Goodbye, Dragon Inn is disappointingly presented in non-anamorphic wide screen, with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1. The image looked okay readjusted for a 16:9 set, but there was also an obvious loss in resolution. The film is available in Dolby Stereo and Dolby 5.1 Surround, both up to contemporary standards. Optional (yellow) English subtitles are included, but most of the subtitling is limited to dialogue from the old King Hu film.
For those who'll like Goodbye, Dragon Inn more than I did, there's a basically useless Tsai Ming-Liang Filmography (if the same info and more is up on the IMDb, why bother?), and a Tsai Ming-Liang Trailer Gallery, which include The River, What Time Is It There? and Goodbye, Dragon Inn. The first two are actually home video promos, but the one for Goodbye, Dragon Inn is a theatrical trailer. All three are 4:3 LBX.
Also included is Tsai's 21-minute short The Skywalk is Gone (Tianqiao bu jianle, 2002), which is also in 4:3 matted format.
The more adventurous readers will want to RENT IT, but for this reviewer Goodbye Dragon Inn was as exciting as watching paint dry. Few are as disparaging as this critic toward Michael Bay, MTV-style cutting and wishes more movies were deliberately-paced, leisurely told human stories. But Goodbye, Dragon Inn is like a P.T. Barnum put-on, a mediation on the end of movies with little to say.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.