Shadows and Light in a Haunted Palace
Sometimes events just magically fall in place…
I normally don’t like to patronize the big video chains if I can help it, but my neighborhood Blockbuster has suddenly stocked five or six non-mainstream titles that even my relatively adventurous Mom and Pop video store doesn’t carry. So I felt somewhat justified last week when I decided to pick up a two-day rental that I knew I wouldn’t be able to see for at least three days and test Blockbuster’s new “end of all late fees” policy. The gist of it is that you’re given a week’s grace period after the original return date has passed. Once that grace-period week has passed and you still haven’t returned the rental, your credit card is magically charged for the full purchase price of the DVD. At that point, you can just say “Great! I loved the movie! I’ll keep it!” or return it to the store, at which point Blockbuster credits the card on your account, less a $1.25 “processing fee.”
So it was that, six full days after it was officially due back to the store, I found myself finally able to sit down last Sunday afternoon and watch Ming-Liang Tsai’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn. Around 1:30pm I had gotten my youngest daughter down for a nap, and my oldest agreed to lay down in bed and rest as well, in preparation for the friends we had coming over to watch the big Oscar telecast later that evening. I had finished most of the house chores I needed to do in order to make the house look presentable to those who aren’t used to the kind of high-density clutter we scurry around in day after day (parents of toddlers will no doubt understand). Patty had gone out shopping, and I found myself in a quiet house with about two hours to kill before doing one last load of dishes. I suspected it might be the perfect afternoon to experience Tsai’s meditative film, one I had heard so much about in year-end top ten lists from film critics who have much more access to relatively obscure foreign films, and much more professionally funded time in which to take advantage of that access, than I do.
But I couldn’t have guessed just how perfect. Goodbye, Dragon Inn takes place in a grand old Chinese cinema on the night of its final performance before being permanently shut down. There is a torrential downpour happening outside, perhaps one reason (but not the main reason) why there are so few patrons inside. But there are patrons inside— among them, a Japanese tourist who stumbles in out of the rain looking more for shelter than entertainment; an old man and his grandson, the teacher giving his young student a lesson in the power of movies; a woman slowly, methodically chewing on peanuts as she gazes, mesmerized, or perhaps bored, at the screen; and another man who seems drawn to the images in the film unfolding before him in a much more personal way. These few filmgoers are dwarfed by the cavernous auditorium and the multitude of empty seats surrounding them, and the film’s sound, with no significant amount of bodies to soak it up, rattles and echoes off the bare walls, taking on a ghostly quality, as if it was being projected from another dimension.
And in a way it is. The film on screen is the classic martial arts drama Dragon Inn (1966), directed by King Hu (A Taste of Zen) and starring, among others, Tsao Jian and Shih Chun. We’re never told why this 39-year-old film is being shown as this cinema’s swan song. But the sights and sounds of the blistering, razor-sharp action scenes of Dragon Inn contrast with the emptiness of the theater and the stasis of the deliberately drawn-out takes in Tsai’s film to metaphorically illuminate the chasm between the modern-day audience and a film whose images of reflected light and meaningful shadows cry out and attempt to connect that audience to the past, to its reality, a reality frozen and unchanging on celluloid.
Tsai’s design is to create an eerie poetry of stillness from which the meaning of associative memory can well up and inform the apparent emptiness of what it is he shows us in his frames. Many of the film’s takes last two, three, four minutes, and document events that are certainly, on a cosmic scale, of a trivial or routine nature, in real time. The woman in the box-office, ready to sell tickets to customers who never come in, sits and observes the empty lobby while preparing a dumpling in a tiny electric pot. When she finishes making her food, she slices off a piece to share with the projectionist. It’s only when she emerges from the box-office to deliver the dumpling that we realize that she is handicapped-- one leg is shorter than the other-- and Tsai’s camera never looks away from her slow, difficult journey from the lobby downstairs, outside and back in through a door on the second floor, to the projection booth. She discovers the projectionist is away from his station, leaves the dumpling, and begins a long, arduous tour around the inside of the cinema, making final preparations for the final closing of its doors.
There are other long sequences in which, on the surface, very literally nothing seems to be happening— Tsai allows us to become absorbed in shots of the empty auditorium, of the woman methodically eating peanuts, of a man weeping at a martial arts drama that was never intended to provoke such emotions. Through such intimacy Tsai evokes a longing for the sounds and smells found only in cinemas, the touch of fabric of the cheaply upholstered seats, the chill in the air, the reverberating acoustics, the communal experience, even when that community is comprised only of five or six people, a form of experiencing art and entertainment that he quite literally shows us as passing away before our eyes. And he does so without resorting to the sentimentality that one might expect from a director depicting the ghostly evaporation of a beloved cathedral, a cathedral less ornate than impassioned and possessed by the reverberating sounds and images of all the films ever reflected by its silver screen.
There are ghosts within its walls, of light and celluloid, but also of flesh. And after those ghosts have passed through the cinema’s doors for the last time, they take with them the memory of seeing Dragon Inn's images projected here once again, as well as the memories of being those images in another place and time. Ming-Liang Tsai’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn comes to its quiet, uneventful close in the hours after those doors shut. There is no conclusion, no narrative wrap-up. Instead, the film drifts away, and we’re left to remember and reconstruct the cathedrals of our own moviegoing past, to ruminate on their meaning, to welcome our own ghosts back into our memories, to contemplate the changing experience of the movies, indeed, to contemplate the difference between Dragon Inn and Goodbye, Dragon Inn, and the chasm between a celluloid past experienced collectively and a digitized present that is more often, and often more satisfactorily, experienced alone.
Color bars. I shut off the TV and made my way to the kitchen. Dishes still had to be done before the Oscar show started. Imagining the upcoming excesses of that big back-patting session cast the evocative poetry of Goodbye, Dragon Inn and its unique embracing of cinema (and cinema) history in even more potent carbon-arc illumination. Here is a movie that somberly elucidates the art of film, and the art of experiencing a film in the kind of environment that is fast becoming enshrouded in the ghostly mists of the past. And I saw it on a DVD exhibited on the big screen TV in my living room. Later I would watch the royalty of Hollywood on that same big screen as they filed into a grand new theater that will itself likely never be used for the presentation of a motion picture, all to coronate Million Dollar Baby as the year’s best, and many of those who considered voting for it likely did so based on an industry screener DVD they watched in their own home, rather than using their Academy passes to see the film on a big theatrical screen. Goodbye, Dragon Inn understands the power of a place, a temple devoted to the worship of a multitude of gods, which cannot be replaced by convenience and cheap technology. For those who hold the experience of such places as important, as continually relevant, the movie extends beyond nostalgia, beyond a flight of fantasy, or of depressive reality. It inexorably finds a path directly to our core of being, where cinema connects most directly with those who would be rendered rapt with possibility as we face the screen, light playing over our faces, sound echoing and caressing and overwhelming our ears, immobile and inexpressive to the outside world, but churning with all the connections that the light and sound is making on the inside, an interior which, when it all comes together and the lights go down, is as big and welcoming as any grand old movie palace.