If I've argued that Michelangelo Antonioni's (1919-) films of the early 1960s represent one of the possible ends of the cinematic art form for that era (while remaining benchmarks against which all cinematic art can be measured), then Taiwanese director and auteur Tsai Ming-Liang's (1957-) works over the last ten years represent another terminus of aesthetic possibility for films of today.
Recently I watched the Wellspring Films DVD version of Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Bu San), which appeared to great acclaim--and I would imagine, a matching level of exasperation--in 2003. The film ostensibly depicts the final evening (at least temporarily) of a large, old film theater in Taipei. Goodbye, Dragon Inn narratively consists of a series of loosely linked scenes of patrons in the theater watching the King Hu film "Dragon Inn," wandering through the theater's bowels, interacting or not interacting, and then, once "Dragon Inn" ends, the film itself soon ends. It is essentially plotless, and what plot you might discern seems almost too threadbare to sustain an hour and 20 minute movie. But, like Tsai's best prior movies, What Time Is It There?, The River, Vive L'Amour, and Rebels of a Neon God, it is a work of high artistry, with some of the scenes achieving what I'd term a contemporary sublimity, and it confirms him as one of the finest and most original directors of the early 21st century.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn is a distilled version of almost every previous Tsai film. Its subject, like the others, is the overwhelming alienation and difficulty of connection among people in contemporary capitalist society. Taiwan (and more specifically the capital Taipei) is the setting of most of Tsai's films, though What Time Is It There? also takes place in Paris, and the alienation could be extrapolated more broadly. In this film as in the others he employs his alter-ego, played by the handsome Lee Kang-Sheng (pictured at left), as well as one other actor from his earlier films in a role not unsimilar to ones he's played before. Goodbye, Dragon Inn like its predecessors uses long--and here extremely long, to the extent of 5+ minutes--unbroken shots, often employing mise en scène and deep focus, that are usually linked associatively, rather through traditional narrative plot points. There is even less of the minimal dialogue here than in his other picture. In fact, almost all the dialogue comes from "Dragon Inn," and the first line of character-spoken dialogue doesn't appear until 40 minutes into the film! It also uses almost no soundtrack music, except in key spots, like the very end, where the old Chinese song's nostalgia is so plangent that it's almost heartbreaking; most of the music we hear also comes from the theater's screen. Its humor is deadpan, and often ironic. And then there's Tsai's usual deluge--in his works, it's often raining outdoors and indoors. In Goodbye, Dragon Inn, it storms outside, with some of it leaking through to an upper storey.
As for the characters, they wander around in bubbles of isolation, though here the bizarrerie of characterization one finds in some of Tsai's other films is muted. One of the protagonists is a halt young female ticket taker (Chen Shiang-Chyi, pictured at right), one of whose legs is shorter than the other. As we eventually realize, she is pining for the projectionist (Lee) and clumps around the empty halls of the theater, first to deliver a heart-like pear delicacy to him, which he doesn't touch, and later to clean up after the movie is over. The other is a young Japanese spectator who unsuccessfully cruises various men in the theater. We learn he's Japanese only because he announces this in one of the rare verbal exchanges--but this connection is fleeting and goes nowhere. An elderly male character has brought what we assume is his grandson to the movie, though one can't be sure, given that this is a Tsai film; only at the end do we learn his link to another elderly male who's been the object of the Japanese man's attentions.
In fact, a queer undercurrent underpins almost all the characters and the film itself, as in Tsai's other movies; we are never told directly that this is a cruising theater, or has become one, but everything--including a scene in the bathroom that includes a funny twist, and several scenes of evidently same-sexual cruising in storage areas--points to it. Yet though the queerness is partially literalized, its economy is global. It also works towards the larger theme, which is the difficulty of desires that do not fit traditional molds or models and thus struggle to be realized, particularly in a world in which everyone is emotionally and socially detached. The young woman wants a man who doesn't really see her, the young foreigner seeks out various men who seem impervious to him and he to them, the two older men don't recognize each other for a long time, others in the theater demonstrate a complete lack of social etiquette (smacking on food or toasted watermelon seeds), and everyone's experiences are rendered basically as individual, monadic, alone. It is the space of the theater itself that provides the place of community, and Tsai, I think, is saying it's precarious, community is fragile, always beset by external storms and our frequent incapacity to look beyond our own self-regard.
The tone of the film combines loneliness, yearning and anticipation, matching the profound lonesomeness and unrequited desire the characters struggle with. The dark tone also parallels the looming end of the theater, which will mark the end of an era and ways of living. Tsai literally and glacially tracks the entire theater itself, a strategy of obliquity that serves as a kind of proxy for the distanced and thwarted emotions. The theater's interiors also can be read for the bleak, urban landscape outdoors, I suppose. Goodbye, Dragon Inn brims with shots whose formal perfection and duration surpass almost any film playing in theaters today (thought very similar, it's now clear to me, to Antonioni, Tarkovsky, Sokurov, or Welles, for example). He also utilizes ambient sound, so we see what is almost a still shot of an empty stairwell or hall, but hear the ticket taker's boot clopping well before she enters or exits the frame. Indeed, at times because of the use of the image durée, both in interior spaces and on the actors themselves, who froze their expressions and gestures--who became statues, or stills--the movie felt like a series of photographs that were only intermittently animated. And what gorgeous photographs. Most of the scenes are bathed in darkness or shadows, or conversely in harsh, industrial light, as befits the inside of a cinema (and a Tsai film), but the colors are vibrant, especially the reds and, need I say it, blues. In the scene most reminiscent of L'Eclisse or Nostalghia, the camera lingers on the empty, lit theater and its tiers of red seats--it lingers and then just keeps on looking, and looking, and looking.... (It's at moments like these that I imagine some viewers have grown exasperated, and I've seen online reports of people walking out. If you have a short attention span, require a plot-driven narrative, want to hear lots of lively dialogue, or manifest any revulsion towards sexual ambiguity, this film may not be for you.)
Tsai has once again created an existential poem in images, this one more lyric than the others in its unfolding, its reliance on thematic plot and imagery, and in its depictions--a long, almost silent poem, of yearning, and mourning. A yearning that suffuses every aspect of these lives, the waterstained walls, the guttering shadows, the empty seats, yet can never be satisfied, not even at the end, when the projectionist learns his fortune and finally searches for the young woman; and a mourning, as the two elderly men note in their conversation, of a way of life that is now disappearing. Gone. Except, of course, we have it, on DVD, as Goodbye, Dragon Inn.