The films of “slow” Taiwanese New Wave master Tsai Ming-liang are not stories we consume so much as fugue states we wake into, and this beloved 2003 meta-thing is an entrancing dose of movie-geek somnambulism. Equal parts prankster farce, wistful cinephiliac homage and ghostly trance, the film hunkers down amid the near-empty seats, halls, lobby, projection booth and bathroom of the Fu-Ho Grand Theater in Taipei, as it shows King Hu’s 1967 wuxia pian classic Dragon Inn one last time before closing its doors for good. In fact the old film’s soundtrack supplies most of the dialogue, as filmgoers intently watch, a gay Japanese man roams the place looking for a liaison, the brace-legged ticket clerk searches for the projectionist to offer him a steam bun she can’t help nibbling at, the projectionist (Tsai axiom Lee Kang-sheng) idly evades her, ghosts mingle with viewers who sometimes tryst in the storage areas and who include, tearfully, two of Dragon Inn’s original cast members. The closing up of the movie house in the last act, when King’s film is over and everyone reluctantly departs into the rain, is observed with the patient reverence of a wake.
It’s not the first film to turn its attention 180 degrees to watch us watching it, but it remains the most concrete, the most wistful, and the most mysterious, lingering in the vast palace’s empty spaces as if years of the daily rite of showing and watching movies has deposited spiritual residue we can almost see. Tsai’s uncompromising style – long shots that put their hand heavily on your shoulder and say just wait – creates a sense of freedom, encouraging us to wander as well, in a Warholian state of flux and whim and distraction, free of cinema’s narrative gravity, and autonomous once again. Call it a kind of movie anti-matter, a movie that feels like getting lost – even though you never leave the building. All of these vaporous experiences come infused, of course, with a powerful eulogy vibe, as the Fu-Ho Grand was soon thereafter demolished, in a year when traditional film exhibition was beginning its slow vanishing act all over the world. An era has come to an end, obviously, but Tsai’s film is rueful and amused, not despairing, saluting not cinema per se but, joyously, the place and ritual and act of viewership itself. We’re the heroes, just for this last day.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn's digital run via Metrograph plays Friday, December 18 through 24.