Ghosts of Nostalgia: Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) - Reviewed


In a week where Warner Brothers has forever changed the American theater experience, a film like Goodbye, Dragon Inn holds a tragically humorous symmetry with a nation undone by tribalism, inept leadership, and a murderous pandemic.  Tsai Ming-Liang forms a holy trinity of slow-paced cinema with Bi Gan and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.  Each spoke of this meditative wheel explores what it means not only to be human, but to empathize with the subconscious collective that defines the species.  Themes of loss, love, magic, and cultural influence are interwoven inside dreamlike sequences in which often nothing happens.  Yet underneath this stagnant veneer is a cauldron brimming with memory and wonder.  

Ming-Liang's 2003 masterpiece, is a quiet, utterly beautiful ghost story about the specters of the past.   Featuring only a handful of lines of dialogue, the story focuses on the last knight of a Taiwanese movie theater's existence.  The final film being shown is King Hu's wuxia classic Dragon Inn.  A handful of people roam inside and out of the environs, including a Japanese tourist, a ticket seller, a projectionist, and members of the original film's cast.  At only 82 minutes, Goodbye can, at times, feel like a lonely eternity.  The anticipation of the end is the central theme that binds the souls of the living and dead within the decaying art house.  Perhaps the most potent symbolism of this is when two of the original cast members meet outside the cinema in an exchange of unsaid respect and longing for the days of old.  

The takes are oppressively long, refusing to pull away from empty seats, corridors, and dreams.   In Ming-Liang's underworld of thought, there is no escape from the quiet, unremarkable end that awaits many of us, and yet, his revelation of this truth is a thing of beauty, finding a solemn sense of pride with the understanding that all things eventually end, and in this Goodbye, Dragon Inn is ultimately a poetic celebration of this conceit.  There is no action, even the fights on the screen are mostly obscured, there are only those who watch and those who watched, as a Japanese tourist proclaims to another man "Did you know this place is haunted?".  Much like life, this a film that is multiple experiences within one, a symbol of how the theater itself is a place where a variety of life can be experienced.   A failed rendezvous between the ticket seller and projectionist, the possible undead that haunt the interior, and the Japanese tourist’s search for a tryst are packaged into a love letter that shows how malleable and fundamentally important the medium is and the result is a cinematic experience unlike any other.  

Available now in a stunning 4K restoration via Second Run, Goodbye, Dragon Inn is an astonishing achievement.  A whisper in the late hours of the mind's eye in which what was cherished and lost becomes a wraiths of the subconscious, this is a peaceful surrender to such creatures.   While the end is unavoidable, it can be either impotently resisted, or lovingly embraced. A choice, when left to Ming-Liang's formidable skills becomes impossibly obvious.  

--Kyle Jonathan