A nearly silent film that takes place in a cavernous movie theater in Taiwan, Goodbye, Dragon Inn is like a nostalgic dream that’s alternately pleasant and vaguely threatening. It’s a rainy day outside and the theater is nearly empty. The movie playing is King Hu’s 1966 Dragon Inn, an action-packed historical epic. We watch a young man as he watches the film, changes his seat and wanders around in the back corridors of the movie house. Everything seems both familiar and strange. When some noisy eaters sit near the young man, they sound like they’re sucking the marrow out of bones. When he moves farther back in the theater, a man instantly sits next to him, despite the hundreds of empty seats; another man behind him sticks his bare feet over the seat.
When he goes to the men’s room he finds himself standing between two strangers, despite a long row of empty urinals. There the three stand, pissing away a small eternity, one man having the time to smoke nearly an entire cigarette. Either people in Taiwan have unusually large bladders or we’ve become unmoored from real time and are slowly floating through a dream of internalized reality, where events last as long as the mind can hold onto them.
Or maybe “non-events” would be more accurate. Director Tsai Ming-Liang made a slightly more eventful puzzle film with What Time Is It There? in 2001, but here creates a minimalist meditative movie that captures the complexity of memory. The subject is really his childhood sense of awe toward the King Hu film and old movie palaces. He thickens nostalgia with feelings of desolation, mystery and sadness and touches of absurdist humor. He rarely moves the camera and holds shots for what can seem like an excruciatingly long time, as when we’re watching the ticket taker, a young woman with a pronounced limp, slowly make her way down a long hall and up some stairs. Such rigorous formalism inevitably works as a distancing device and Ming-Liang uses it here, as in previous films of his, to get a subtle new feeling, a kind of deadpan sadness.
It’s a demanding approach and some viewers may find it off-putting, conclude that nothing’s happening and become restless. But if you can steady your gaze, slow down, get into the movie’s dream-time pacing and accept the lack of plot, you’ll find yourself drawn into the film’s visual beauty and general strangeness.
In Mandarin with English subtitles. Showing at 7:30 p.m., Monday, March 7, at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237).
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].