Goodbye, Dragon Inn Review
With the release of Days (2021), Taiwanese auteur, Tsai Ming-Liang, made almost every top 10 list that’s worth a damn. Perhaps what’s most impressive is that the film’s poetic, minimalist approach, along with its themes of memory and loneliness, don’t seem to be new in Tsai Ming-Liang’s work. In fact, all this is present and executed to perfection in his 2003 release, Goodbye, Dragon inn.
The film is set in the Fu-Ho grand theater, specifically during a showing of Dragon Inn, an actual film that is still considered very important for the once-thriving Taiwanese film industry. By the early 2000s, when Tsai Ming-Liang released Goodbye, Dragon Inn, American blockbusters had gobbled up the markets in both Taiwan and Hong Kong. In this way, even the film’s name involves itself in conversations of culture and geopolitics, showing as Derrida said in Cinema and its Ghosts that the filmic medium is “a magnified work of mourning.” Film itself is a kind of memory, a kind of ghost, so it’s shouldn’t be a huge surprise when, in one of the only pieces of dialogue in the entire film, one character asks another: “have you heard this theater is haunted?” This is a film soaked in nostalgia, from the cinematography to seeing the star of the original Dragon Inn in a mostly-empty theater, watching his younger self with tears in his eyes. I’m also fascinated by how, despite having no real plot to speak of, the film nevertheless presents a strikingly powerful sociological critique.
By showing us this dilapidated independent movie theater, and those who attend it, along with those who work to keep it running, Tsai Ming-Liang is saying so much about social spaces in cities, and how the encroachment of western culture has affected entertainment outlets for working class people. It’s also worth exploring how this cultural shift enhances an already-intense sense of alienation brought by class society. The Japanese tourist in the film is a perfect example of this: the way he’s so desperate for connection but can’t find any, literally leaning inches away from a fellow moviegoer but being unable to make physical contact. Even we as viewers are made to think about our role and place in such systems when the film cuts to shots that make it seem as if we are sitting in the chairs of the Fu-Ho theater.
Overall, I found this to be a real filmic achievement. No complaints on my end. Like all slow cinema, the pacing may take some time getting used to, but I think Tsai Ming-Liang framed his approach to this perfectly in a recent Q&A, saying the pacing is purposefully meant to be so slow it breaks the limits of our attention span. This makes the viewer question their role as viewer, and also stems from his installation work done in museums, playing off the notion that we can always ‘walk away’ whenever we choose; but I say it’s worth the wait.
Whether or not you like slow cinema, this 81-minute masterpiece is sure to astound. Goodbye, Dragon Inn is now streaming for the first time ever via Metrograph. Hopefully this means a home/physical media release is impending, but in case it’s not, be sure to stream it while you can. If you enjoy it, I highly recommend also watching Days (2021) on Mubi!
STREAM OF THE WEEK:
I chose this week’s best stream for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s amazing. The acting, the cinematography, everything about it is outstanding. Secondly, I’m a huge fan of Guillermo Del Toro, and can’t stand that a film of his was somehow overlooked—at least by me—last year. This week, I’m talking about his remake of the 1947 film noir, Nightmare Alley.
It’s no secret this film didn’t get a lot of love in theaters, and that can be chalked up to a few reasons. Mainly, I think American distributors simply find it hard to market Del Toro’s work. Crimson Peak is a great example. Despite it clearly being a gothic romance, it was marketed as a horror film, and the same can be said about Pan’s Labyrinth. This is a whole other discussion, but I think it’s worth mentioning because, in a world where films are always pigeonholed into overly-rigid genres for the sake of profit and convenience, Del Toro’s work disrupts this corporate machine in what I think is a really important way. It blends genres and breaks the mold, thereby challenging the institutions of capital that set those molds. This is vital framing if we are to understand just how significant this film is as the latest addition to his oeuvre.
Nightmare Alley is, like most film noirs, a challenge to the system—perhaps even more so in Del Toro’s hands than the original director, Edmund Goulding. Much like his past meditations on fascism in Spain or class and mortality in Mexico, this film is a brutal insight into a brutal system. We are shown America, where the social elite are wrung with guilt and haunted by the skeletons in their closet, and the have-nots are forced to become the worst version of themselves just to get by. A lot of the visuals in this were both gorgeous and striking, and I think Del Toro’s cinematographer, Dan Laustsen, used color in a really interesting way, muting the blues in some moments just enough to really punch the shot through with a specific mood.
A powerful exploration of things like class, ambition in society, and so much more, this new film is among Del Toro’s best; I put it only behind Pan’s Labyrinth in his filmography. If you like crime dramas, film noir, great cinematography, fantastic acting, films with an important message, basically anything a movie could possibly hope to offer, this is the film for you. Stream it on HBO as soon as you’re done reading this!