GOODBYE, DRAGON INN (2003)

(DVD/Blu-Ray) Back in May I posted about MUBI teaming up with the Music Box Theatre — a Chicago arthouse theater — for a two week ‘Back on the Big Screen’ event. (The previously recommended MATINEE was also part of the programming.) The sole film I didn’t recognize was Ming-liang Tsai’s GOODBYE, DRAGON INN, so I immediately bought a ticket without reading anything about it, apart from a sentence fragment I accidentally skimmed while patching up my Music Box Chrome extension: “It’s the final show at Taipei’s enormous Fu Ho movie palace”

The screening was surprisingly well-populated for a Monday matinee in early June — a good sixty, seventy or so folks, all vaguely socially distanced and mostly masked. Maybe more? I’m poor at eyeballing an audience but, given that two weeks prior, I was the sole person at a Wednesday matinee, it was a solid crowd.

That said, based on what I overheard upon exiting the film, a good two-thirds of them walked away feeling disappointed, expecting something far more gripping or narratively substantial than they received. Obviously, I don’t hold the same opinion.

GOODBYE, DRAGON INN is first and foremost a mood piece. Apart from the film that plays throughout the bulk of the piece (DRAGON INN, 1967), there’s very little dialogue in the film. A young man enters a film palace screening its final film before closing. A black cat scampers down the hallway. A woman with leg braces clomps around, doing her last daily rounds, stepping across leaky spots in the deteriorating building. She brings food up to the projectionist, who is missing from the projection booth. Said young man encounters a small number of individuals during the screening, some who may be real or may be ghosts. One particularly memorable individual is a woman who loses her shoe while endlessly cracking enough sunflower seeds to flood the theater stairway. The young man leaves. The woman closes up shop. The projectionist leaves. The woman follows.

In other words, GOODBYE, DRAGON INN is comprised of atmospheric vignettes of theatergoers and theater operators. It has the barest of narrative arcs, and few specifics about the characters that inhabit the theater, and even those specifics are inferred instead of explicitly stated. It’s pure cinema in that it shows, it doesn’t tell, which is obviously why it was brilliantly part of MUBI’s programming. While it’s not to everyone’s taste — after the film, I grabbed a drink outside at a local bar and couldn’t help but hear two folks bitch and moan about how boring the movie was — this sort of visual longform work is catnip to me, and I feel very lucky to have been able to attend the screening, and very thankful that MUBI did program it instead of a film that may have been more popular, but certainly would have been far less interesting.

(This is yet another case where the film is not available to stream, and hunting down a copy for a region one player can be costly and very difficult, so I’ll wink and suggest a YouTube search instead.)