How we experience time impacts our perception of its passing. Three minutes between classes go by in the blink of a sneeze. The two minutes it takes for a dental fluoride treatment to be completed is 120 seconds too long. One minute more of sit-ups is nearly unbearable. Bonafide nerves may contribute to why the second scenario would incline us to believe that two minutes could not elapse any slower, but it’s the actual waiting that alters our senses. Taiwanese New Wave director Tsai Ming-Liang intuitively understands this concept, and as he demonstrates in his self-scripted film “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” (2003), that time passes at all is more damaging than whether it is speedy or sluggish.
The story in “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” is simple. On its last day of business, the Good Fortune Movie Theatre shows King Hu’s 1966 Chinese swordplay film “Dragon Inn.” The disabled ticket woman (Chen Shiang-Chyi) walks through most of the facilities one last time; a Japanese tourist (Kiyonobu Mitamura) searches for a cigarette lighter and encounters a few peculiar cinema patrons. Even though the characters are active, as far as moving around and interacting with each other on some level, a static camera that does not cut for minutes at a time makes you feel like nothing is happening. The ticket woman is one of the most mobile characters and yet the entire time you are watching her, you are also waiting for her to get to her destination (down the hall, up a flight of stairs). Her right leg is in a brace, therefore it takes her more time to get around, and Tsai’s stationary camera forces you to soak up every single second. No shot is shorter than one minute nor is it longer than three to four minutes, but in cinema, a mere sixty-seconds can feel like six minutes.
Wielding unwavering resolve, the director confronts us with real time to emphasize the film’s ideology, which is that time destroys everything and the only way to combat it is to stop its progression. In one of the longest takes in the film, the ticket woman is sitting in the projection booth. She remains absolutely still for two minutes and forty-three seconds and it seems like an eternity. The director transforms these never-ending minutes into the illusion that time ceases to exist. A moving picture appears to have become a still one. He produces the same effect several times throughout the film, involving scenes where characters are motionless or have just left a certain space. Tsai’s preoccupation with time is not only reflected in the cinematography, but also in the narrative. There are three dimensions of time: the duration of “Goodbye, Dragon Inn,” the length of “Dragon Inn,” and the suggestion that months or years have gone by from the moment Tsai’s film commences and when it ends.
“Goodbye, Dragon Inn” starts with images from the beginning of “Dragon Inn,” then reveals that a packed house is quietly and attentively watching the King Hu film. When the Japanese tourist enters the story shortly thereafter, there appears to be fewer than five people in the movie theatre. There is a little boy, a couple snacking very loudly, and you assume everyone else is in off-screen space. “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” then switches to footage of the ticket woman making her rounds. Every time it returns to the Japanese tourist or to the theatre room, the number of patrons decreases. “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” may test your patience, but it also prickles your psyche. In terms of genre, Tsai’s film is not horror, but like every Japanese movie, the mise-en-scene drips of creepiness. The ominous tone of sterile lighting and long takes is compounded by the near total lack of dialogue. Up until approximately the forty-four minute mark, the only voices heard speaking are the ones that come from “Dragon Inn.” When the characters in Tsai’s film finally talk, it is oddly enough between the Japanese tourist (who has left the theatre room to find a light for his cigarette) and a man who is standing in a cellar-type corridor. They very briefly converse about the movie house being haunted by ghosts. Other than elements of the mise-en-scene, there is no real reason to suspect that there really are ghosts. The Japanese tourist, however, is none the wiser. As an allusion to a nation that has mastered Asian horror, he ironically finds himself frightened by his Taiwanese environment.
Tsai Ming-Liang has made a film that by all aesthetic accounts should be a scary film. Psychological eeriness is present, but in tone as opposed to story. Remarkably, though, rather than simply wear the skin of a sinister movie, “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” is somewhat of a satire of the genre. In addition to the “feeling” that the film gives you, there are visual cues that indicate Tsai is commenting on the personality of a typical horror film. For instance, there are posters of “The Eye” (Oxide Pang and Danny Pang, 2002) plastered all over the theatre’s exterior. During one of the ticket lady’s forays into the “backstage” of the theatre room, she cracks open a door and peers in with a wide eye. “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” does not pretend to be part of a category that it belongs to with respect to “makeup and costuming,” and yet it knows that you are unconsciously waiting for confirmation that something spooky indeed lurks about in the Good Fortune Movie Theatre.
The only real phantom in “Goodbye, Dragon Inn,” though, is the realization that movies do not change but audiences do. As the film progresses, the size of the audience watching “Dragon Inn” grows smaller and smaller until only three people remain. Two of these characters have the second and final conversation and what they say to each other profoundly connects with Tsai’s obsession with the destructive and depreciative power of time.