Goodbye, Dragon Inn

Reviewed By Collin Souter
Posted 09/30/03 09:30:12

"We’re walking, we’re walking…we’re not TALKING, but boy are we walking!"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

(SCREENED AT THE 2003 CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL) The Taiwanese film “Goodbye Dragon Inn” is a movie that requires much patience. One could only recommend it for people with an insatiable appetite for experimental filmmaking. Every critic thinks they crave experimental filmmaking, but I sincerely doubt any cinemaniac would crave a movie like this unless they had trouble finding a nice quiet room in which they could sit and meditate. Do your noisy neighbors keep you awake with their shouting and their loud porn? Stay in your pajamas and head over to the nearest cinema playing “Goodbye Dragon Inn” and bring your Garfield pillow. No one will disturb you.

Yet I do find it disturbing that “Goodbye Dragon Inn” should have been a contender for a year-end Top 10 list. I’m a sucker for movies about movie theaters and the experience of going to the movies (I gave “The Majestic” a good review, for God’s sakes!). I love nostalgic movies about the golden ages of cinema. I love old movie theaters with their balcony seats, their worn-out chairs and their echo sound system. I miss the palaces and the single-screen stand-alones. I attend the drive-ins regularly in the summer time. “Goodbye Dragon Inn” should be my kind of movie.

I guess I just don’t have a head for it. “Goodbye Dragon Inn” tells a couple stories, but it tells them through a means that I found quite dull. Director Tsai Ming-Liang shoots most scenes with one-take static shots that encompass little to no dialogue and with even less action. Some of the shots look beautiful and need no story. Many linger for so long, they make Kubrick look like Michael Bay. While I always admire any attempt at storytelling through unconventional means, Ming-Liang seems more interested in showing us how well he can compose a shot than about creating a story or character with which we can identify.

Here’s what we got for a story: The rundown Taipei theater has its final night before it closes for good. They show the martial arts film “Dragon Inn” (a much more interesting movie). Very few people attend. One guy shows up looking to hook up with a companion. In another story, a limping woman bakes a special something for the projectionist, but she can’t bring herself to talk to him. About 45 minutes in, somebody says a line of dialogue: “Do you know this theater is haunted? This theater is haunted. Ghosts.”

Now, understand that I’m able to put this story in coherent form for you because I got most of my information from the plot synopsis written in the festival guide. Had I not read anything beforehand, there would be no way to explain this movie. I love silent movies. I don’t need a lot of dialogue in order to grasp the storyline, but Ming-Liang gives us nothing to go with. I feel more like I’m watching a cinematographer’s clip-reel and they’re in love with every shot (so we should be, too). Perhaps we’re meant to wonder if these characters do exist or if they happen to be ghostly, wandering derelicts. The movie does have a haunting and eerie quality to it at times, but it doesn’t stay with the viewer for very long.

As I said, some shots look wondrous. A wide shot of the theater itself as we see just about every seat in the house illuminated by the action on screen. Hardly a soul sitting in any of the seats, but we do get to marvel and wax nostalgic for a while about the movie theaters of yesteryear. Basically, any shot that involves the movie on screen is worthy of putting on a postcard or screensaver. Ming-Liang clearly has affection for those old-fashioned theaters, but one wishes he would devote the same amount of attention to his characters.

I admit to never having seen Ming-Liang’s other movies (“The Hole,” “What Time is It There?”), but supposedly he uses static one-take shots as his trademark. One day, I may give those movies a chance, but “Goodbye Dragon Inn” just doesn’t do it for me. It’s the kind of movie you can watch at home in fast-forward and you wouldn’t feel as though you’re missing much.

I do feel as though we missed out on what should be a great movie. After reading the synopsis, I walked into it excited. Yet, about 20 minutes into it I felt as though someone played a prank on me. Every time that “Dragon Inn” movie showed up in the movie I was watching I wanted to watch IT instead of “Goodbye Dragon Inn.” It’s as though someone lured me into the theater only to tell me that I couldn’t watch the movie I came to see. Instead I would have to stare at my neighbor as he/she watched it, and I would inevitably nod-off while watching them nod-off.

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