Director: Ming-liang Tsai
Screenplay: Ming-liang Tsai
Additional Narrative by: Sung Hsi
Starring: Kang-sheng Lee, Shiang-chyi Chen, Kiyonobu Mitamura, Tien Miao, Chun Shih
Running Time: 82 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
For a scene in his 2001 film What Time is it There?, director Tsai Ming-liang used an old repertory cinema, the Fu Ho in Taipei, as a location. He later decided to host the film’s premiere there, leading to a packed out screening.
A few days later, the owner asked Tsai if he would partner him in running the cinema. Tsai thought he was joking and declined, but the owner said the cinema would probably have to shut down without his help. So, Tsai instead asked if he could rent the cinema to shoot another scene there. He didn’t actually have a scene to shoot but didn’t want the cinema to close down. He rented it for a year and, after several months, his producer reminded him the lease was running out. So, Tsai quickly wrote “a very short, poetic screenplay” which tried to capture the atmosphere of the cinema and made Goodbye, Dragon Inn (a.k.a. Bu san).
This film went on to become a critical success, taking home the FIPRESCI Prize at the 2003 Venice Film Festival, among other accolades. It was even picked by three directors (including Tsai himself, admittedly) in Sight and Sound’s 2012 poll to select the 10 greatest films of all time.
Second Run are releasing Goodbye, Dragon Inn on Blu-ray and DVD. Being a lover of cinema, an elegiac ode to the great era of film theatres appealed to me, so I asked for a copy to review.
The film doesn’t have much of a plot to speak of. Basically, it charts the final near-empty screening at an old, run-down cinema showing King Hu’s Dragon Inn. We follow a few characters during the evening. Shiang-chyi Chen plays the disabled lady who runs the ticket office and we see her do the rounds, keeping things ticking over whilst eating her supper. She tries to give half of this to the projectionist (Lee Kang-sheng) but he’s nowhere to be found.
We also follow a Japanese tourist (Kiyonobu Mitamura) who, along with some of the other few patrons in the cinema, is using the theatre as a place to cruise for gay sex. He struggles to build up the confidence to ask the man he’s interested in and never really gets far. Reportedly the actual Fu Ho cinema served such a purpose around the time of production.
Also attending the film are two of the actors that appeared in the original Dragon Gate, Tien Miao and Chun Shih, along with Tien’s grandson. This adds a meta-angle to proceedings.
That’s pretty much it in terms of narrative, but that’s not what Tsai is interested in. Goodbye, Dragon Inn is a prime example of the ‘slow cinema’ movement. Shots rarely ever move and are held for epically long periods of time. I must admit, shots were occasionally held a little too long, testing one’s patience. You certainly need to be attuned to the technique to sit through the film. However, I still greatly appreciated the style. The long, static takes let you properly soak in the atmosphere and pay attention to every detail of the performances and location.
Indeed, the location becomes a character in itself. With its leaky ceiling, damp patches and general decay, it’s the rotting corpse of a once-grand theatre but still has beauty hidden within.
Tsai also expertly controls subtle drama within his seemingly uneventful frames. In a further ode to the magic of cinema, he mines a range of quiet joys from the minimal set-ups. There’s a poignant unrequited love story between the ticket lady and projectionist that only becomes fully apparent by the end, there’s a hint of a ghost story in a claim that the cinema is haunted (described in one of the film’s few lines of dialogue) and there’s plenty of comedy in the Japanese man’s failed attempts to ask for a cigarette to pick up a date. It’s often not clear for a while exactly what we’re watching or where the drama is coming from or going to, but Tsai subtly leads us in the right direction by the end.
The film also looks stunning. Pen-Jung Liao’s cinematography is gorgeous, using rich but subdued colours and low-key lighting to bring the static but carefully framed shots alive.
Matching this is the film’s sound design. The soundtrack to Hu’s classic Dragon Inn runs through most of the film, but Tsai also heightens the atmosphere through minimal but bold use of the heavy rain outside (and inside where the roof is leaking), the annoying noise of audience members snacking and other textures.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn has an extra layer of poignancy in the current cinematic climate as the pandemic is keeping audiences out of cinemas and causing some chains to close down. Although the Fu Ho cinema is hardly palatial, watching an audience spend their evening there (even if few of them pay much attention to the film) made me desperately sad that I’ve spent so little time in theatres this year. It made me particularly nostalgic for the old fleapit in Huddersfield I used to go to as a youngster. Their like is rare these days, with the multiplex chains taking over, and this film is also a comment on that.
So, although the ultra-minimalist, slow-moving style will put off your average movie-goer, Tsai squeezes drama, comedy and romance from his static tableaux, to create a quietly beautiful ode to cinema-going. It certainly made me want to be in an old run-down theatre again, losing myself in the magic of cinema, despite the meagre surroundings.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn is out on 23rd November on region-free Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Second Run. It looks and sounds gorgeous on Blu-ray, with rich textures and colours, though I noticed a couple of very brief, barely noticeable flashes of what seemed like stains on a couple of frames. It was literally only twice that I noticed this though, and I watched through a projector on a big screen. Other than this it’s a stunning print.
Also included with the film:
– Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Bú sàn, 2003) presented from a brand new 4K restoration of the film.
– A new and exclusive filmed interview with director Tsai Ming-Liang.
– Madam Butterfly (2009, 36 mins): world home-video premiere of Tsai s remarkable modern-day interpretation of the classic story.
– Booklet featuring new essays by curator and critic Tony Rayns, plus a personal appreciation by filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
– New and improved English subtitle translation.
– Original soundtrack in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 2.0 Stereo LPCM (24-bit)
– World premiere on Blu-ray.
– Region free Blu-ray (A/B/C)
The interview gives a fairly thorough amount of background into the film’s production and how it sits among Tsai’s work.
Madam Butterfly is captivating, if a little frustratingly stretched out at times. It has a very different look to Goodbye, Dragon Inn, utilising a rough, handheld, roaming digital style of filming, with only 3 different shots in the whole film.
As always, the booklet is a fantastic ‘extra feature’ in its own right, with further appreciation and background to the film.