Sunday, October 24, 2004

Goodbye Dragon Inn (Bu San)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 October 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener)

There have been a great number of films about the process of making movies, focusing on the studio politics and the fiery personalities of the filmmakers. Relatively few, though, have focused on the places where we see movies - the movie theaters which take on personalities of their own. Certainly, there are fewer of those now, as more people get their movies on video or in newly-built multiplexes.

This film may not resonate as well for people who don't get as attached to theaters as I do; I worked at a now-shut-down theater in college, and I always try to note the theater before the review, because I think that the environment does make a difference. The screening at the Brattle included the theater's directors and a few others who had worked in small theaters. We were able to note all the little things about this type of theater that Goodbye Dragon Inn gets right - the strange architecture that sometimes requires you to climb one set of stairs and then down another to get between two rooms on the same level, the sweltering heat of the projection room, or how painfully understaffed the theater can be when things are heading downhill.

Additionally, this is a Tsai Ming-liang film - actually featuring the same movie theater as his What Time Is It There? - which may make it tough sledding for some. Though short - just a bit over eighty minutes long - it can seem longer, as Tsai tneds to hold certain static shots for what seems like an eternity. Excepting the soundtrack from Dragon Inn on the screen, there are less than ten lines of dialogue in the film, in two exchanges, the first of which doesn't occur until halfway through the movie.

I still recommend the movie. Tsai's static compositions are chosen with purpose, and there's enough on the screen to study, and holding the camera on an ordinary or banal scene for an almost painful period serves to magnify the humor value of something unusual happening. And despite the lack of words, there are some characters you get to know very well.

Take, for instance, the woman played by Chen Shiang-chyi, working the ticket counter and as the usher. She's got a metal brace on her leg, which means those familiar with Tsai will sardonically note that those static scenes of someone walking across a room will take even longer. But it also makes her a human representation of the theater itself - she's damaged, but still beautiful, even if she is taken for granted by the projectionist she clearly pines for (frequent Tsai Ming-liang collaborator Lee Kang-sheng), just as the city of Taipei has ignored the Fa-So Grand Theater.

The theater is on its last night, showing Dragon Inn to a mere double handful of people, many of whom are more interested in cruising than actually watching the movie. It seemed a little odd to me, as this part was outside my experience as both a theatergoer and employee. Other bits will be more universal, like the guy who sits down in the seat right next to you despite there being eight hundred other empty seats in the theater. There's also an older gentleman watching the movie, and as we cut between the theater and Dragon Inn, we see that he is one of the actors from that 1966 movie, and he's mourning his lost youth along with how his movies, which once filled theaters, are now playing to an almost empty and indifferent house.

Goodbye Dragon Inn is sad and melancholy, but also beautiful. It's a love letter to the old movie houses in all their imperfect glory. Not everyone is attached to these old theaters with their accumulated history, or to Tsai Ming-liang's ultra-minimalist mood pieces, but for those of us who are, a movie like Goodbye Dragon Inn is extremely worthwhile.

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