Though far better known by its English title, the appropriately elegiac Goodbye, Dragon Inn, Tsai Ming-liang’s 2003 masterpiece bears a rather different name in Mandarin (rendered here via pinyin): Bú sàn, which roughly translates to “never leaving,” or—if one prefers the Sartre connotation—“no exit.” It forms the root of two distinctly contradictory Chinese idioms, which perfectly encapsulate the lamentation and beauty of Tsai’s film: Tiān xià méi yǒu bù sàn de yán xí, the infamous “all good things must come to an end,” and Bù jiàn bù sàn, which more or less means “even if we don’t see each other, don’t give up and leave,” or “I’m not leaving until I see you.”
From title on down, Goodbye, Dragon Inn, one of the greatest films in the history of cinema, construes itself not as the simple paen to a dying artform as which it is often perceived, but a constellation of complex, aching desires; it is both wholly in keeping with Tsai’s oeuvre and stands starkly apart from it. The timing of the long-awaited restoration now seems almost too on-the-nose, given that theaters across America remain shuttered and spectatorship in its ideal form has temporarily ceased. But Goodbye is above all resolutely present-minded, less concerned with the future of theatergoing than with the material longing and mystery that its inhabitants experience.
A brief description is in order: Goodbye, Dragon Inn takes place over the final night of operation at the Fuhe Grand Theater in the Yonghe District of Taipei—the actual theater closed before filming began—which is showing King Hu’s landmark 1967 wuxia Dragon Inn as its last picture show, and follows a few workers and spectators as they experience both the film and the theater’s space, which is possibly haunted and purportedly a hotbed of gay cruising.
This sense of compression is notable in and of itself: the shortest of Tsai’s theatrical features at just 82 minutes, it is also the only of his films to take place in a single day and one setting. But even more striking is his choice of central subjects: one is the theater’s ticket taker, played by Tsai regular Chen Shiang-chyi—wearing a brace on her right leg, possessing a seemingly unrequited love for the theater’s projectionist—the other a Japanese tourist (Mitamura Kiyonobu). The name missing from this list is Lee Kang-sheng, leading man in every other Tsai feature and subject of, putting it frankly, his erotic fixations, and who here plays the man in the projection booth, unseen until the final ten minutes. Though these characters are the primary focus, the key character in a given scene shifts with more fluidity than any of Tsai’s other films: Lee himself takes the center stage in his few scenes, as do the theater’s more memorable, possibly spectral denizens: a woman eating a mountain of melon seeds (Yang Kuei-mei, another regular), groups of men loosely gathered in the dark backrooms of the theater, including frequent Tsai actor Chen Chao-jung, and most significantly of all Miao Tien (who played Lee’s father in many of the director’s other films) and Shih Chun, two of the main actors in Dragon Inn.
If Lee is the fixed subject of all of Tsai’s other films, it is surely vital that Goodbye, Dragon Inn operates without a personified center. Instead, all sensual catalysts and intense longing are transferred to totemic figures and objects: a smoldering cigarette, a makeshift hallway of cardboard boxes, and above all the space of the theater itself—and by extension the masterwork unspooling on its screen. Dragon Inn, and King Hu’s direction, is masterful on the precise opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum from Tsai’s famously static, long-take style: quick cuts, rapid tracking shots, elaborate fight choreography. But each share a particular relationship to Taipei. For all of the universal metaphors related to cinema’s decline that Tsai’s film invites, these are both films and filmmakers intensely interested in a Chinese identity and sense of place. Hu’s picture provides the necessary counterbalance for Goodbye’s near-wordlessness—Tsai’s contains just eleven lines of dialogue across two scenes, the first coming 44 minutes in—as Dragon Inn’s characters can express anything, move in whatever manner they choose.
Tsai’s characters have no such recourse: the ticket-taker walks with a pronounced limp, the tourist is limited by his total unfamiliarity with the building. They instead project their desires and greatest wishes onto both the screen and people around them. The ticket-taker’s encounter with the film, where the projected image of Lingfeng Shangguan’s showcase fight scene forms a speckled light pattern upon her face, is understandably the most famous, but even more central to Tsai’s project is the point early on where the tourist sees Shih Chun in the audience and sits next to him. It is unclear what his intentions are as he leans in—perhaps to ask for a light, perhaps to inquire about his acting, perhaps carnal intentions, maybe all of the above—but what’s unmistakable is the look of pure longing on his face, and the disappointment with which he gets up and leaves the auditorium as Shih’s gaze stays fixated on the screen, watching his past self live the heroics he can no longer experience.
Tsai’s filmography is concrete and uniquely teleological, yet his individual films rarely resolve themselves in so neat a fashion, and Goodbye, Dragon Inn in particular resists easy resolution. Yes, the theater is closed and its residents scattered into the rainy Taipei night, but alongside this Tsai affords characters the barest hint of a connection, which in this context registers as the most magnanimous of gestures. And then there is the Yao Lee song “Can’t Let Go,” dubbed “an oldie from the ‘60s” (the same decade Dragon Inn was released) by Tsai, lingering long after the final image of the theater fades away. Both wistful and accepting, bitter and sweet, both it and Goodbye, Dragon Inn refuse to side with one emotion over the other, and instead to embrace the irresolution, the mixed feelings. This film’s potency is all in the passing of years, the endless possibilities: though the glorious space that once connected us is lost, we may still find each other in another place, at another time.
The new restoration of Goodbye, Dragon Inn opens digitally on December 18 at Metrograph.