Dir: Tsai Ming-liang | Writer: Sung Hsi, Tsai Ming Liang | Cast: Kang-sheng Lee, Shiang-chyi Chen, Chun Shih, Tien Miao | Drama, Taiwan 82′
Voyeurism is the thread that runs through Tsai Ming-liang’s eerie drama Goodbye, Dragon Inn. Of all his minimalist observational outings it’s probably the most fast moving yet enjoyably languorous, not to mention darkly humorous, if your sense of humour is wickedly drôle.
All and sundry from the low-key gay cruising community drop by for the final night of opening at a cavernous crumbling Taipei cinema, where the crippled usherette goes through her rounds like an attractive female version of the hunchback of Notre Dame. There’s a haunting quality to the place with its echoing corridors and vast empty vestibules, the Noirish shadows making it perfect for explorative camera angles and inventive overhead shots. Tsai has found a way to combine a love letter to Chinese cinema with a meditation on the quality of alienation, loneliness and awkwardly tentative communication between those looking to hook up in the drabness of a rainy afternoon or in the garishly-lit cinema lavatories, where the protagonists linger expectantly. The director also explores the cinema going experience as a community activity, years before Netflix: we want to be transported away to our fantasies, but are usually made painfully aware of the irritating person behind us slurping their Pepsi, picking their teeth, or resting their foot within millimetres of our shoulder-blade.
In his long fixed shots, minimal action plays out, but nothing escape the furtive camera – the pink neon light reflects on a woman’s face turning her into an instant femme fatale. Shadows cast on the profile of a debonair denizen transforms him into a mysterious matinee idol enjoying an evening alone (it is Shih!). Meanwhile, in the brightly lit entrance, the tupping sound of the usherette’s artificial limb is the only sound apart from torrential rain. The silent cinema-goers pay little real attention to the film on the screen even though it’s King Hu’s 1967 martial arts epic Dragon Inn. It slowly emerges that two lone members of the empty stalls starred over 50 years ago in the film they’re watching, Miao Tien and Shih Chun, the latter shedding quiet tears in memory of a glittering career. They later meet in the foyer, exchanging pleasantries as Miao Tien lights up a cigarette looking out despondently at the pouring rain.
Dialogue is minimal, the tone morose but never is it maudlin. We’re left with a feeling of poignant regret as the shutters go down for the last time, the two solitary employees making their way out into the night alone. MT
SCREENING IN 35mm DURING UK TAIWAN FILM FESTIVAL