Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn seems like one of those movies that was just made to be seen in theaters. Released in 2003, this ode to moviegoing depicts the last film screening at an old Taipei picture house before it is shut down, with the camera luxuriating in each shadowy corner of the run-down cinema.
But Metrograph has recently screened a new restoration of the film in virtual cinemas, bringing the expansive feeling of the theater home. Regardless of whether this film is being viewed in a darkened cinema or a living room, on a big screen or a small one, every frame exudes a pure love of watching films.
The camera takes us inside the final screening shown at the Fu-Ho Grand Theater, where the film of choice is King Hu’s 1967 sword-fighting epic Dragon Inn. As opening narration draws us into that movie (which is set in China during the Ming dynasty), Goodbye, Dragon Inn’s camera films from the back of a darkened theater, where the picture flickers and the score blares. We watch the credits roll in an extended shot, before the camera cuts to the outside of the Fu-Ho Grand Theater. All of Goodbye, Dragon Inn moves between the inside and outside of the cinema, and between the inside and outside of the fiction of film. We submit ourselves to Tsai’s trademark slow cinema, beholden to what he wants to show us, whether that be shots of Dragon Inn or the mundane encounters of the theater’s patrons.
There is practically no dialogue, since most of the action is set inside the theater, where — as purists might hope — silence is of the utmost importance. We hear mostly the ghostly hum of the projector or the shallow breaths of people. But moviegoing is not a completely static, sanctified experience; people get up, move around, or munch on snacks. We follow viewers who occasionally roam around the theater, and the camera moves with them to the bathrooms and damp hallways.
Lee Kang-sheng plays a projectionist who often steps away from the projection booth, while Chen Shiang-chyi plays a ticket-taker who hypnotizes us even as she deals with the monotony of her work, limping down hallways or cleaning bathrooms. A young Japanese man (Mitamura Kiyonobu) haunts the cinema, hoping for a covert encounter, but he is rebuffed by a man (Chen Chao-jung) who tells him the theater is haunted by other ghosts.
Ghostly seems like an apt descriptor for the whole place: we are seeing things just before the end of the world, when the projectors will be flicked off and the doors and windows shuttered. This nostalgic film about the joy of being in a cinema surrounded by strangers feels especially poignant as a viewer today, when many of us do not know when we will next get to be in a theater. These strangers are all linked together by nothing other than the common goal of wanting to share the joy of a martial arts movie. Tsai’s film shows us the end of an era in this picture house, but the camera invites us to stay and sit a while longer, while the beauty lasts.
Tsai’s use of emptiness and silence is utterly hypnotic, casting the film’s movie theater as a soon-to-be-mythical space where time stops and ordinary rules do not apply. It is a film filled with longing in every moment, making the viewer long to inhabit its world, too; to live in the fantasy for as long as possible. Like Tsai’s countless other masterpieces, Goodbye, Dragon Inn is melancholy and spectral, conjuring an air of mysticism in the magical space of the cinema. The spectators watch Dragon Inn with tears in their eyes, and in an incredible meta-cinematic moment, some actors from the original film appear in the theater audience with their families. Goodbye, Dragon Inn is a farewell, as we see this particular cinema’s dying breaths. Yet it dies filled with people who love it, who will carry forward the spirit of moviegoing inside them, wherever they find themselves watching movies next.