Combustible Celluloid Review - Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003), Tsai Ming-liang, Tsai Ming-liang, Lee Kang-sheng, Chen Shiang-chyi, Kiyonobu Mitamura, Shih Chun, Tien Miao
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With: Lee Kang-sheng, Chen Shiang-chyi, Kiyonobu Mitamura, Shih Chun, Tien Miao
Written by: Tsai Ming-liang
Directed by: Tsai Ming-liang
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Mandarin, Taiwanese with English subtitles
Running Time: 84
Date: 09/16/2004

Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Last Picture Show

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The sixth feature film by Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang, Goodbye Dragon Inn is the perfect festival film: a masterful meditation on both the singular and collective experience of going to the movies.

Goodbye Dragon Inn takes place in a leaking, dilapidated movie theater on the last (rainy) day of its existence. For its final film, Tsai has chosen an old kung-fu film, King Hu's Dragon Inn (1967).

It's a good choice. Hu's magnificently fluid action camerawork completely juxtaposes Tsai's still, lingering shots. Yet it's a fairly obscure work. When two of the actors from Dragon Inn turn up in the theater, much older, to watch the film, no one recognizes them. It adds to the sadness of a theater shutting down; a vibrant film from days gone by that no one remembers or cares about.

The theater operates with its own quiet life-pulse. A pretty but hopelessly hobbled ticket girl lurches around the theater's dank intestines looking for the handsome projectionist (Tsai regular Lee Kang-sheng), to give him half of her pink fortune cake, hoping for one final chance to bond with him.

The theater's few patrons likewise look for some kind of human connection. A Japanese tourist who has come into the theater to get out of the incessant rain wanders around looking for someone to light his cigarette and possibly something more. The first person he meets, the first person to speak to him, warns him that the theater is haunted. Later a woman sitting near him and watching the film "disappears" while looking for her shoe.

With almost no camera movement and barely a stitch of dialogue, Tsai uses yawning physical space and aching time to lay bare loneliness in visual form. When the film ends, the quietness overtakes everything else. In a single, wide shot, we watch the ticket girl stump in and around the empty seats for the last time. When she leaves the frame, Tsai holds the shot for an impossibly long time, daring us to consider everything about this experience of going to the movies.

Afterwards, it's still raining (could this be the same rainstorm from Tsai's The Hole?) and we watch the ticket girl as she walks home. The movie is over and there isn't going to be a next one. How sad is that?

Note: San Francisco's Roxie Cinema came through and opened Goodbye Dragon Inn on December 17, 2004, officially qualifying it for my ten best list.

DVD Details: I've seen Goodbye Dragon Inn twice, once on home video and once in the theater, and it works superbly both ways. Wellspring's fine DVD will give more people a chance to see this outstanding work. Extras include a trailer gallery (The River, What Time Is It There? and Goodbye Dragon Inn) and a Tsai Ming-liang filmography. The box lists a photo gallery, which I could not find, unless it's indicating the line of tiny photos that scrolls by on the main menu screen, which the viewer cannot control.

Happily, the disc also includes Tsai's remarkable 20-minute short film, The Skywalk Is Gone (2002), which is considered a kind of epilogue to What Time Is It There?. In it, the girl returns from Paris and vaguely wonders what happened to the skywalk and the boy who sold watches. Meanwhile, Hsiao-kang re-appears and auditions for a porn movie, though the two never connect. The film is all reflective surfaces and confusing spaces, and even Tsai's trademark water is gone; there's a draught and no one can get any water, not in a restaurant, nor through a bathroom sink.

In 2023, Kino Lorber released a beautiful Blu-ray, including a new 4K restoration of the film. It doesn't include The Skywalk Is Gone, but it does include another, newer Tsai short film, Light (2019), which, true to its title, is an experimental work exploring how light plays over surfaces. Critic Nick Pinkerton provides a short 6-1/2 minute introduction to the film, and there's a scholarly commentary track by Phoebe Chen. We also get a re-release trailer and optional English subtitles (not necessary, given that there's hardly any dialogue in the film). Highly Recommended.

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