Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003)

Directed by Ming-liang Tsai; Written by Ming-liang Tsai

A place out of time, running out of time.

Wistful, celebratory, and deeply devoted to a fast-decaying concrete palace where guests chew their food loudly, plop their bare feet on backrests and have no sense of personal space; the moviegoing-experience has never been presented with such spirituality, existential concern and entrancing indulgence as in Tsai’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn, a film about the last screening at an old coliseum of a movie house. 

Poor on words, but rich on atmosphere, Tsai’s affection for his subject comes through in a languid love language. Long (like, really long) shots force you to fully take in the space, the screening halls, the hallways, bathroom and lobby, as the action in them rarely reaches a greater intensity than someone walking, looking, or gnawing down on peanuts. The place is the star, but when the place is coming apart and has clearly seen better days, the aura of the place becomes the pull, because there’s little to distract from it. 

The ticket woman, left idle once the screening starts, does the rounds, flushes the toilets, brings the projectionist some food, only to find him gone. She cleans a glass. She wanders the halls as if to give us one last look before it’s all no more, but the place feels impossibly big and its architecture disorienting. There’s an air of mysticism in this aggressively mundane husk of a building. 

A Japanese tourist (Kiyonobu Mitamura) uses the cinema as a cruising ground, and does inject some off-beat comedy into it all as he finds one disturbing encounter after another in the cinema rows as he falls victim to loud chewing and encroaching feet. He later wanders the halls in a sequence that feels like a surrealist comedy sketch. All to add to the strangeness of a place that seems out of time, and now finally due to disappear with all its ghosts in tow. 

Goodbye, Dragon Inn is a movie you must surrender to. It won’t pander for your attention. There are no big outpourings of sentimentality, no grandstanding, no hectic action to speak of. It’s like the muted sound behind a door. You must find it intriguing enough to open that door and strep through.

This cinema is full of odd characters. It certainly has a musty smell to it, and yes, it may no longer offer much more than cruising grounds and mindless distractions for an afternoon. It’s ancient to a point where it disappears in the cityscape, a dull grey block among the rest. But Tsai insists it is also magical if you look for its magic. That the place deserves some respect, and one last going over, so it may look ready for what comes next. It’s cinema that’s so much more than a distraction, and a great way to spend an afternoon. 

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