Tsai Ming-liang's follow-up to his breakthrough film, "What Time is It There?" is an absorbing visual poem about the pros and cons of going to the movies. While it is less expansive than his previous outing, it clearly belongs alongside the director's other films. Like the rest, it features lonely characters in an urban setting, as well as long, static shots.
"Good Bye, Dragon Inn" takes place in an old-fashioned movie house, which has one screen, shows revivals of classics, and suffers from a lack of customers. The Fu-Ho Grand Theater, as it is called, doesn't quite live up to its namesake anymore. Much of the interior seems dilapidated, and the overall mood approaches sadness.
The movie alternates between a ticket woman with a bad leg (Shiang-chyi Chen), who seems to be the only employee of this vast theatre, and a young man (Kiyonobu Mitamura) who has come to enjoy King Hu's martial arts epic "Dragon Inn." She happens to be away from the booth when he wanders in, so he sneaks into the theater sans ticket. The two characters remain on separate paths: she performs her nightly routine, while he attempts to enjoy "Dragon Inn." Through the course of the film, they never connect with each other. Nor anybody else, for that matter.
Practically half the movie is spent showing the ticket woman hobbling to her locker, a Herculian task given the Fu-Ho's size. Often, the director will let the camera linger until the character retreats from the frame completely. This technique slows down the rhythm of the editing, which affects the speed at which the audience perceives events. But it also emphasizes the solitude of the character, since she remains the sole subject of Ming-liang's interminable shots.
In the case of the young man, the extended takes capture his growing frustration. He does not enter the Fu-Ho Grand looking to be an island onto himself. But petty annoyances, stretched out over the course of long, uninterrupted shots, go a long way towards alienating him from his fellow movie-goers. He hops from seat to seat, but everywhere he goes, he encounters couples who make loud snacking noises, or sneakers next to his head. Occasionally, his interest is piqued by a fellow patron. Unfortunately, his friendly approach often meets a cold shoulder.
The youth never acheives any kind of connection with anyone. There are men who cruise the Fu-Ho looking for dispassionate sex, but it's dispassionate to the point of being invisible. In one scene, which takes place in the men's room, he never realizes sexual congress has been happening in a nearby stall until the surprise appearance of the second participant. The joke is how subdued, how unimpressively muted, both parties must have been to accomplish such stealthy relations.
Somehow, the youth locates a hidden labyrinth, frequented by men who wear yearnful looks. They wander through shadowy passageways, eyeing one another, squeezing against each other in narrow spots. These shots depict friction without actual heat. The youth's standards, being higher than some, explain why he holds out until meeting someone who tickles his fancy. He approaches a boyishly-handsome stranger in a blue button-up (Kang-sheng Lee, a Ming-liang regular since 1992's "Rebels of the Neon God"). But despite early indications, this one isn't interested either. Once again, instead of hooking up, the young man finds himself left high and dry.
The way the director handles it, however, proves strangely amusing. He waits until the moment both characters appear most intimate-the stranger having ignited the youth's cigarette, as well as his libido. When the former leans in as if to kiss the stranger, the latter nonchalantly states the theater is haunted, then walks away. One suspects that the youth has just encountered a ghost himself, but he is too busy being sexually frustrated to heed the message.
Could the Fu-Ho really be haunted, or was the stranger simply messing with the young man's mind? Several scenes imply the former, such as the ghostly young woman who makes eating sunflower seeds seem like Chinese water torture. There is also the appearance of two actors from the film "Dragon Inn": Shih Chun and Tien Miao (another veteran of Ming-liang's films). They mourn how no one goes to see movies anymore, and how the images of their younger selves have faded from the public mind. In either scenario, these characters could be people off the street, or they could indeed be spectres. Ming-liang never states anything explicitly.
Personally, I much prefer the ambiguity. The suggestion of ghosts completely changes our perception of shots at the beginning of the film. Remember those opening images: Countless heads staring forward at the projection against the movie screen. In later shots, what happened to those extras? Were they ever really there, or could Ming-liang have been implying something more mystical, that human beings leave part of themselves behind, even when they go to the movies?
Upon looking back, I wondered whether the ticket woman, who never interacts with anyone, could have been a ghost. Perhaps she is cursed to haunt the corridors of the Fu-Ho, a Sisyphus-like spirit who sweeps floors instead of rolling boulders. More likely, however, she's a real person, whose condition restricts her to menial labor. But working at the cinema allows her certain privileges: There is that wonderful moment when she walks behind the theater screen, and stares up at the giant image of a warrior woman from "Dragon Inn." The camera cuts back-and-forth between her and the female fighter, as lights from the silver screen play off her face. Not only does this moment perfectly capture the liberating power of the cinema, it offers insight into the ticket woman. We realize that, in spite of the difficult working conditions, she might have chosen to be here all along, in exchange for moments like this one.
"Good Bye, Dragon Inn," is noteworthy enough for being filmed in the director's signature style. It's also set in an interesting place, and has something to say about movie-going experience. In addition, everything that happens to the youth while he tries to watch "Dragon Inn" adds up to a humorous assemblage of common moviegoer complaints.
Above all, the movie takes place in a theater, which Ming-liang turns into a microcosm of big city problems. The Fu-Ho itself is an historical edifice left to rot, and contains episodes about personal space (the "noise pollution" from the snack-eaters in the viewing room) as well as social alienation (the lonely ticket woman, the silent men in the labyrinth). There is also a crime issue, as deviant behavior has creeped into a place that welcomes young children (the bathroom liaisons, the gay men cruising the labyrinth).
What caused this downward spiral? Is the decline of the Fu-Ho Grand Theater predicated by the same factors that have affected the movie-showing business in America? Too much piracy? Too many entertainment alternatives? Has their industrialized culture broken too many communities into disparate islands onto themselves, for whom the thought of sharing space, time, and experience seems unbearable?