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Sunday, March 15, 2015

GOODBYE, DRAGON INN THE MOVIE


Turned the laptop on after seeing a film I have a hard time finding anything to say about. It would take an ocean of things to say or nothing. Made in Taiwan by director, Tsai Ming-liang. I'd seen three other films by him, all of them telling me I want to see any I had not yet seen. This one came to the top of my netflix Q today, Goodbye, Dragon Inn. It was a brave film to make. I can't imagine how he found a producer. It was the ultimate anti-action film made around an action film from 1967, Dragon Inn, a Chinese (Taiwan) kung-fu sword-fight version of a Japanese samurai film. The film mostly happens inside an old movie theater in Taipei, its last night open. This was closing night. Half a dozen people in the theater. They're watching Dragon Inn. The film amounts to a series of still scenes inside the theater with someone moving through the scene, or not. A woman with a brace of some sort on her leg walks throughout the theater looking for the projectionist to give him something to eat. She never finds him. We look at the different individuals in the theater, watch them watch the movie. The camera work is worth mention. A couple times looking down the aisle of steps between the rows of seats, the steps will be going almost straight up on the screen. It doesn't seem unusual. It seems like the film was a review of the inside of the theater, looking at it from outside, seeing how once the theater was important, and by closing night in 2003, it had become irrelevant, showing kung-fu slasher films. The stillness throughout the film was not boring. Each scene had a quiet tension, wondering if something might happen in the scene. Never does. Brief word exchanges happened a few times. 


One guy tried to pick up another guy in a hallway. The guy he tried to pick up told him the theater was known to be haunted, had ghosts, and walked away. Watched the woman with the leg problem walk throughout the theater. One shot looked at the shadow cast by the vertical bars of a stair rail for a long time, listening to the woman climb the steps, one at a time, until she reached the level with the camera, came into view and slowly walked out of the scene. One of the half dozen in the seats was an old man sitting alone. Tears ran down his cheeks. Another old man was there with a child of about three. Sometimes a scene in the movie, acrobatic spinning dances with flowing robes and quick swords, shouting in Chinese. The soundtrack of the film is heard in the background in all the scenes throughout the building. The film playing, Dragon Inn, is always in the air. A film with as little action as a Japanese garden mixed with a kung-fu action movie. The flickering on the screen is a movie within a movie, the action generating no emotional commitment, the same as looking down an empty hallway for a long time, waiting for something to happen, and nothing happens. It's not frustrating. Right away, I caught onto the rhythm of the film, which did remind me of a documentary I saw once of Japanese gardens, action in stillness. In this way, it felt like the director's attitude was reverential toward the theater, sad to see it end. The lights came on, everyone was gone. Out front, the two old men recognized each other. They were actors in the 1967 film, living in Taipei, who came to see it perhaps the last time, the one bringing his grandbaby. They spoke briefly and stood still, looking back at the entrance to the theater.


The projectionist and the woman with the leg I took for his wife, tie up the loose ends, closing the theater, turning off the water to the urinals in the men's room, turning out lights, closing up for the last time. Curiously, by the end of a film in which nothing happens, I'd become acquainted with the half dozen people in the theater and the two people working the theater. It is a film so beautiful I'd like to recommend it to my film-watching friends, but when I think about who I know can sit through a movie in which nothing at all happens, it comes down to Lucas and Judy Carpenter. I feel like I have been in the presence of pure art, art for art's sake. If I didn't have the race to watch tomorrow, I'd see it again. I googled Tsai Ming-liang, director, to see what other films he'd made. I'd seen them all. This was the last of his I had not seen. At the end, I saw previews of three of his other films. I enjoyed reviewing them, remembering liking them all as much as Goodbye, Dragon Inn. One, The River, was among the strangest films I've ever seen, and among the most beautiful. Again, nothing much going on in Hong Kong where the weather is tropical. People sit around, walk around, ride around. And then one surprise moment in silence that could never be spoken of, but never forgotten. The movie goes on like before, but everything is different. Tsai Ming-liang, the director, has a subtle mind, so subtle I don't understand how he finds a producer. His films are not about making money. They're about winning international film awards, good marketing for a film that only shows in art theaters. Though every scene was shot by a still camera, like a still photograph, on one wall, or hallway, or in the rows of seats, each frame was a work of art in its composition and colors, like a wall-sized abstract or surrealist painting. Then someone walks through it, or stands in it, or sits in it.


The film seemed to me in the "school" of minimalism in cinema. It was as simple as stacked blocks of wood by Carl Andre, or tiles on the floor that a sign on the wall in the Museum of Modern Art invites you to walk on. The film was a series of beautiful compositions of plain spaces lasting half a minute or more. I never got bored, was never restless wondering when it will be over. I was held by the suspense of an empty space, an essentially abstract backdrop and people passing through it. I've been longing for a really good Chinese film I've not yet seen. This one was it. The trailers, previews, of Tsai Ming-liang films in the special features brought back memories of each one, making me want to see them again. I've seen too many straight-forward movies for awhile, needed one to hold me like this one did in its indirectness. The last three movies I've seen, before Goodbye, Dragon Inn, I had to take a nap half way into them. Good films, but slow, making me want to crank up the metronome. And this one today, so slow it stood still, I never looked at the clock one time. Never got the first case of jitters wanting this thing to move on, get in motion. Like a piece of music, it moved forward through time visually. This is one of the many aspects of netflix I love. I see a film I love, look for others by the same director, and I can have a film festival of movies I love. Will see Romanian films for the next couple weeks. I understand they're depressing, but don't care. Like Latvian films, Ukrainian films, Mongolian films, a look at life behind the Iron Curtain, to see how the people lived in the places we had little to no news about. I found Soviet satellite countries severely depressed, both economically and psychologically. The Soviet system, I can only assess from what I've seen, dismantled the cultures of the people in these countries. The stories show people having a slow time getting culture going again. The Soviet occupation made them dependent, then dumped them all overnight with strings attached. I love tapping into cultures around the globe by way of film. This one, Goodbye, Dragon Inn, rang my chimes. 

tsai ming-liang, director


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