I’ve struggled even trying to come up with an opener when I wanted to talk about Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn because the subject matter is something that had always spoken great volumes to me. But among those was a question that I’ve been asking many of my own peers who are also into film, where does everything start? Our own love of cinema has to start somewhere, so to recollect a memory of where one starts is a key to understanding the impact of Goodbye, Dragon Inn. We have that experience, we want to share it with another, but others have their perceptions of what films mean to them. For how much we love films, there’s another degree to where we wonder what they mean to someone else based on how others see them. But what happens if they end up going away from us? This melancholy is a feeling that Goodbye, Dragon Inn captures beautifully in what I believe to be Tsai Ming-liang’s best film as of yet.
The film’s title makes a reference to King Hu’s martial arts epic Dragon Inn, and takes place within a theater as it is closing down. Dragon Inn is the last film that they are showing. Only a few people have come to show up. This whole film is about these people. There are no names, but their positions are recognizable, the ticket lady is looking for the projectionist, a gay Japanese tourist is looking for a new encounter, and an old man comes by to tell him the cinema is a haunted ground. As all of this is going on, the stars of Dragon Inn are watching their own film in its last showing, in tears, and more connections come forth. Everything about Goodbye, Dragon Inn finds itself united by cinema, and soon it ends up transcending what we already can recognize as “life imitating art.” Goodbye, Dragon Inn represents art uniting people from the quietness of an environment that absorbs us as we watch our own favourite films.
Like the very best environments that we can ever find ourselves engulfed within as we watch films, Goodbye, Dragon Inn distinctly lacks dialogue for the most part – rather instead it is comprised of many long takes that engulf one with the atmosphere of a theater can provide. Yet it’s within this quietness I feel a great connection between me and an art form, because that’s the only way we know images can take us in, when we hear them speak to us. Goodbye, Dragon Inn manages to speak volumes because of the fact that it’s so quiet, like an empty auditorium, but it’s also hypnotizing in the sense that it is peaceful. It’s an environment that only makes the backgrounds feel so much larger and thus an alienation from character can be felt. Alienation because we feel a sense of doom is coming forth and thus the tragedy is highlighted even more.
It comes solely from the emptiness of Goodbye, Dragon Inn. not only in its setting but in what it amplifies. Inside of its slow pace, we witness a generation dying as they witness something of great significance flash before their own eyes in the form of a film. Our troubles escape, but soon come back as cinema speaks to us, and there’s a message that Dragon Inn wishes to provide for its viewers in what is established to be the very last showing inside of the theater of the film’s setting. From the fact we have the original actors present to watch the film in the theater inside of an empty room, there comes something so intensely personal because the film plays like a reflection upon achievement, and once it ends we are left with the bitter reality. The silence amplifies loneliness just as it pays its own love letter to silent films during the early days of film, and with each subplot there come memories as they pass by, left in a state of fragility to eventually be forgotten.
But if something about Goodbye, Dragon Inn had allowed for a more meditative experience, it was ever-present within how the fact so little action is required in order to drive such a great impact. Tsai Ming-liang rarely ever moves the camera, but inside of an empty background and so little dialogue, it brings back a memory of where I was taken aback by my own love for films. It recreates what the experience was like when one finds themselves taken aback by cinema as it communicates to them, and as every comedy and tragedy comes into play, there comes an old familiar phrase turning on itself. As mentioned in an earlier paragraph, said phrase is the often repeated “art imitates life.” As we loom through hallways of a place defining us at the current moment before we eventually say our goodbyes, we like to think about where our own affinities have started and what happens when they are about to leave us, probably never to come back.
I don’t know if I’m even prepared to ever say my own goodbyes to films as my life has formed itself around finding more to watch day by day. Over in Canada, all of our HMV outlets have closed up shop and they were the only place I could find such diversity with more discoveries to be made. But there comes something so universal in Goodbye, Dragon Inn‘s own execution, over the years we have grown to become so attached to finding something new out of something we love. But a journey must come to an end at some point and are we ever ready to say goodbye? Where Goodbye, Dragon Inn takes us back to is a state of remembrance. Soon, we have become a part of the echoes that define our memories, from birth to our death. This here is cinema as a means of communicating to our own history, as it grows to define our character, our spirit, and our mysteries as time fades away. Are we ever ready to say our goodbyes? I don’t know, nor do I think I ever will.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Wellspring Media.
Directed by Tsai Ming-liang
Screenplay by Tsai Ming-liang
Produced by Hung-Chih Liang, Vincent Wang
Starring Lee Kang-sheng, Chen Shiang-chyi, Kiyonobu Mitamura
Release Year: 2003
Running Time: 81 minutes