Goodbye, Dragon Inn [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Second Run
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (20th November 2020).
The Film

Golden Horse Award (Golden Horse Award): Sheng-Chang Chen (winner), Best Taiwanese Film of the Year (winner), Best Feature Film (nominated), Best Director: Ming-liang Tsai (nominated), Best Leading Actress: Shiang-chyi Chen (nominated), and Best Sound Effects: Duu-Chih Tu and Shiang-Chu Tang (nominated) - Golden Horse Film Festival, 2003
Festival Prize (Best Narrative Film): Ming-liang Tsai (winner) and Media Choice Award : Ming-liang Tsai (winner) - Taipei Film Festival, 2004
FIPRESCI Prize (Competition): Ming-liang Tsai (winner) and Golden Lion: Ming-liang Tsai (nominated) - Venice Film Festival 2003

On a rainy night when a Taipei second run theater is set to close its doors for the last time, the final feature of the night is a screening of King Hu's 1967 box office smash wuxia film Dragon Inn. The theater's crippled, quietly pining ticket taker (The Wayward Cloud's Shiang-chyi Chen) also the last remaining employee who must also make rounds on a bad leg, do the sweeping, and flush the toilets seeks out the projectionist (What Time is it There?'s Lee Kang-Sheng) to leave him the gift of half of her steamed bun but he proves elusive. A Japanese tourist (Kiyonobu Mitamura) looks for signals from his seatmates and prowls the theater corridors and restrooms in search of a hookup. There may even be a ghost or two, or perhaps it is just two of the film's stars (A Touch of Zen's Tien Miao and Legend of the Mountain's Chun Shih) bidding adieu to the theater itself and one more venue where new generations of viewers might have been able to see them on the screen. The theater is indeed haunted, but not necessarily by the dead.

Although his previous film What Time is it There? had received American arthouse release, and a number of his earlier films already had French financing, Venice Film Festival winner Goodbye Dragon Inn was the film that brought Malaysian-born director Tsai Ming-Liang to attention in English-speaking countries. This is odd, since it is the film in which he started to pare down his plotting in favor of a more observational style while his earlier works (subsequently distributed here on DVD and repertory release) like Rebels of the Neon God, The River, The Hole, and I Don't Want to Sleep Alone dealt with more provocative subject matter. Here, Ming-Liang follows the ticket taker through the theater's corridors, back rooms, the projection booth, and even behind the screen in real time, the duration allowing the viewer to take in the atmosphere of decay and desolation while also revealing the degree of her desire to connect with another soul on the last night in which she will have the opportunity. She never finds him not apparently because he was avoiding her but because he is seen also taking on additional responsibilities like emptying out the buckets of water accumulated from the leaking roof and her decision to leave her portable bun steamer behind after clearing out her desk seems to be tied not only to her memories of the theater but also this missed connection. The endeavors of the Japanese tourist to find a partner are both humorous and moving as he searches the faces of other patrons who seem almost ghostly because of their rapt attention to the screen, stands awkwardly at a urinal trough that becomes populated by more men than were seemingly present in the theater, or squeezing past and brushing up against other patrons in a narrow corridor as another looking for an indicator of interest. There is not dialogue for the first forty-four minutes of the film apart from the Dragon Inn soundtrack, with the first line spoken by a character: "Do you know this theater is haunted?" There are indeed ghosts in the theater, as the tourist discovers in a startling scene with a buildup more accomplished than the efforts of some of the film's J-Horror contemporaries. There is no reckoning between the viewer and the screen the likes of Escape from the 'Liberty' Cinema or even Demons, so it really is fitting that it is the one patron who shed a tear for what was happening onscreen who laments: "No one goes to the movies anymore."


Given limited festival and theatrical release in the U.S. and the U.K., Goodbye, Dragon Inn was only available in English-friendly form stateside as a Chinese import with audio issues and a Wellspring Films DVD featuring a murky transfer that did not serve the film's low-key lighting scheme well while the 1.70:1 framing neglected the periphery where in some instances Ming-Liang positioned characters like in the late sequence where the ticket taker finally sees the projectionist from the vantage point of her shelter from the rain at the extreme left of the image. The HD restorations of Ming-Liang's films have been trickling through as imports and stateside DVD-only releases, but it was a surprise that it took this long to get around to a 4K restoration of Goodbye, Dragon Inn with Second Run's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen the film's worldwide debut on the format. The new transfer better serves the low-lit design, teasing out textures in the setting while shadows have a bit more detail before receding into bottomless black. Reds pop wherever they appear in the image and the scene in the projection booth whether by accident or design seems to expose more of the image than the rest of the transfer with rounded corners on all sides of the frame.


An early Dolby Digital release, Goodbye, Dragon Inn's surround mix is very conservative with very attentive sound design sometimes exaggerating effects deliberately but favoring atmosphere over directional effects. It is only the rainy exteriors late in the film that seem to make full use of the front and rears at the same time. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is faithful to this mix while the LPCM 2.0 stereo track is perfectly serviceable. Newly-translated optional English subtitles translate the rare instances of Taiwanese and Japanese dialogue as well as all of the Mandarin dialogue from the King Hu film.


Extras are spare but include the valuable interview with director Tsai Ming-Liang (35:37) which does have some rough passages of audio since Ming-Liang was shooting himself outside during a windy day. He recalls his childhood in Malaysia when his grandfather would take him to see a film per day at the cinema, falling in love with movies noting the contrast between his childhood love of commercial films and the noncommercial bent of his own work and discovering the Goodbye Dragon Inn location of the rundown Fu-Ho theater when he needed to shoot a scene for What Time is it There?, signing a year lease for the theater to help keep it open, and coming up with a film to shoot there towards the end of the lease. Although he admits to not actually missing the cinemas of his childhood, he cites the origin of the story in a recurring dream of one of them. He then discusses the two week shoot of roughly four scenes per day, casting regular player Chen studied in America and was teaching acting in Taipei while Mitamura was a distinctive face he recalled from the audience of the Japanese premiere of What Time is it There? and its festival screenings and he reveals that the reason the projectionist did not show up until late in the film was because Kang-Sheng was shooting his own directorial debut The Missing. He notes that both his film and Kang-Sheng's films were meant to be medium length efforts as part of a planned diptych Bu jian to Ming-Liang's Bu san but they both ended up feature-length (in Ming-Liang's case because the shots were so long). He also discusses the technical side, noting it was the first film in which he used a lighting designer because of the challenges of lighting the theater particularly when the screen was in frame and his conflicts with sound designer Duu-Chih Tu (2046) over his preference for hard cuts both in film and sound editing, and how the film marked a change in his filmmaking style from plotting to observing the everyday.

The disc also includes his 2009 short "Madame Butterfly" (36:41) which is itself an expansion of a five minute short commissioned by the Lucca Film Festival for a project called Puccini Twenty consisting of twenty five-minute films related to Puccini's works. According to the booklet, there is no record of what the five minute version was like and apparently not one thought to ask Ming-Liang but the version on disc consists of three long takes (the first lasting twenty-two minutes) which presents a modern version of the titular character in a bus station trying to get home after being lured to the city from the provinces by a man who then casts her aside. We see several sides of her, including her frailty, desperation, and her pride (refusing the charity of the bus station when she does not have enough money for a ticket but then going down to the buses to try to beg a ride).


Packaged with the disc is a 20-page booklet featuring new essays by curator and critic Tony Rayns expanding upon a write-up he did upon seeing the film originally. He also provides some information on Ming-Liang's background and the inspiration for the film and draws parallels between King Hu and Ming-Liang both got their Taiwanese start at the same KMT government-controlled film company and were striving to become independents in the latter's choice of the film within the film and the casting of two of its actors. There is also a personal appreciation by filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul whose Cemetery of Splendour references the film in its own cinema visit sequence, and a couple paragraphs about the Madame Butterfly short.


Tsai Ming-Liang's Goodbye, Dragon Inn does more than lament the demise of second run movie houses, it manages to speak volumes about its more humanistic themes with almost no dialogue.


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