JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Scene title: “Noisy Eaters.”

Scene title: “Rude Patrons.”

The Dragon Inn soundtrack provides ironic commentary as the Japanese tourist tries to get a light.

The men’s restroom: first there are two men …

… then three men (a minor breach of urinal etiquette: looking over at your neighbor).

A man leaves the stall, and the Japanese tourist looks back over his shoulder.

The storage room as expressionistic cruise park.

“Shadows in the Shade.”

Yang Kuei-Mei’s character trying to reach her shoe in the next row.

Lee Kang-sheng as the projectionist, smoking while rewinding the film reel.

Missed contact: the ticket woman (far left, in shadow) watches the projectionist (in a blue rain poncho) leave on his motorbike.

The sign outside the theater is ambivalent: “temporary closure.”

 

 

 

Rented spaces

Fredric Jameson argues that setting a film in Taipei has specific effects on the basic SMS paradigm:

"For the Gidean project—the novel as a multiplicity of plot strands — presumably survives and persists in Terrorizer, with the difference (of degree, rather than of kind) that the urban framework is here intensified and becomes something like a primary message of the narrative form itself … The city frees all this [character and plot construction] up: its chance meetings and coincidences allow for a far greater variety of character-destinies, and thereby a web of relationships that can be spread out and unfolded in a dazzling array of distinct ideological effects. "(132)

If the city intensifies the problematic of chance encounters, what are the distinct ideological effects of the urban setting of the movie theater itself? Like Michel de Certeau’s work on “walking in the city,” Tsai stresses the aleatory and oneiric aspects to how people make use of this place, a space that is simultaneously literal and metaphoric, actual and virtual. De Certeau describes the utopia of the City in terms of

“the relationships and intersections of these exoduses that intertwine and create an urban fabric … a universe of rented spaces haunted by a nowhere or by dreamed-of places” (103).

The movie theater is precisely such a rented, dreamed, and haunted space for Tsai.

Tsai’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn essentially works as a form of “ethnomethodology” for thinking about this space and how it is used (i.e. “spatial practices”). Like traditional ethnomethodology, Tsai makes use of various “breaching experiments” in the movie theater and the men’s restroom in order to reveal tensions and desire circulating among strangers in the theater. Many of these are demonstrated through the character identified only as “the Japanese tourist” (Mitamura Kiyonobu). In the theater during the screening of Dragon Inn, the first rule breached is the rule of “silence”: the young man glares over at a couple loudly smacking their lips while eating. The second rule governs proximity: as the Japanese tourist attempts to get a light for his cigarette from an older man in a leather jacket (Shih Chun, who was in fact an actor in the original Dragon Inn) sitting one row in front of him, another man swings his bare feet over the seat behind him, close to his face. Then another older man sits directly next to the Japanese tourist, despite the fact that we can see the rest of the theater is empty. This crowded composition of men is full of an ambivalent tension of desire/repulsion.

What follows is a game of “musical chairs” which finally ends with Mitamura sitting down next to Shih, once again trying to get a light for his cigarette, getting close and turning directly towards Shih who stays staring ahead at the screen. Shih only looks over after the young man walks away, unsuccessful in this first attempt at contact (with the cigarette as well known tool and signifier of “cruising”). Meanwhile, the soundtrack of Dragon Inn comments ironically on the scene through dialogue of two men meeting for the first time in a more classical providential plot:

“What name do you go by?”
“Hsiao Shao-Tze”
“Brother Hsiao. Where do you make your living?”
“I don’t work. Anyplace where someone will spare some food, I’ll stay awhile. I don’t really think about what I do.”
“I don’t mean to be rude, but may I ask you a question? You come to this wilderness… For what purpose?”

So in fact we are presented with an ironic juxtaposition of classical and newer forms of the chance encounter. Jameson explains:

"In its earliest forms (as in the Byzantine novel), the providential plot, based on the coincidence of multiple destinies interweaving, was not particularly urban in its spatial requirements. … If the urban comes to predominate, it is because the inns and highroads in which the protagonists of the older novel meet by accident and rectify their mistaken identities necessarily require such characters to be travelers with destinies of a specific type — exiles, runaways, pursued or pursuers, so that the plot itself is always molded according to a distinct subgenre of narrative type. The city frees all this up…" (132)

The homoeroticism of such encounters remains implicit or “virtual” in the classical novel or wu xia pian (swordsman) cinematic narrative (Chan 100n9), but here it is given a new dimension by the scene that follows of the Japanese tourist in the men’s restroom. Lee Edelman has argued that this particular space is densely loaded with “coded” homoeroticism, including fraught distinctions between public and private — urinals and stalls. For the entire scene, the Japanese tourist stands at a urinal next to another man who is smoking, and they are joined by another — again in close proximity despite the long row of urinals. Meanwhile, we see a man leave one of the stalls to wash his hands, and a few moments later, a man’s hand inside the stall closes the door shut. The Japanese tourist notices this, but the tension is maintained for the remainder of the scene as the first man to leave the stall continues to wash his hands for over a minute. The “breaching experiment” comes when yet another man reaches through the men at the urinal to grab his cigarettes left on the top of the wall, revealing the tense arrangement of “personal space” at the urinal. In total, the restroom scene lasts three minutes without the men at the urinals finishing, which builds the tension and results in an oddly comic effect, uncovering the sink or urinal as alibi for cruising. This is one of many scenes in Tsai’s film that frustrate the audience’s desire to see more explicit (gay) sexuality. But as a filmmaker Tsai is clearly interested in frustrating audience expectations, especially about shot duration, desired narrative, and clearly assignable sexual identity [5]). [open endnotes in new window]

Another man’s hand inside the stall shuts the door.

The Japanese tourist notices the sound of the stall door closing.

Another man retrieving his cigarettes.

The breaching experiment: personal space at the urinal.

The restroom scene foreshadows a later scene in which it seems like the storage hallways of the theater have been transformed into an expressionistic cruise park, with several men, including the Japanese tourist, wandering around as if in a maze and pressing past each other in tight quarters. All of the young man’s unsuccessful attempts at making contact (cruising in the most general sense) culminate in a scene in an upper hallway where he finally manages to get someone to light his cigarette (as in Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks, 1947). The man who lights his cigarette says to him,

“Do you know this theater is haunted? This theater is haunted. Ghosts.”

The young man attempts to move closer to him, practically pressing his cheek to the man’s face, but the man finishes his cigarette and walks away. As he leaves the frame, the young man says,

“I’m Japanese.”

To which the man responds,

“Sayonara.”

Pressing past each other in tight quarters.

“This theater is haunted. Ghosts.”

Suspenseful proximity.

To say, “I am Japanese,” ends up connecting “colonizer” and “queer.”

The young man is left standing alone for a full minute, and it is unclear what effect the declaration of his nationality/ethnicity is supposed to have. In relation to Taiwan, a Japanese identity is certainly freighted with historical meaning (as colonizer) that is residual in the identity of “tourist.” This scene is therefore “haunted” by colonial history and by homoerotic sexual tension at the same time (John Treat has argued that it can be difficult to untangle the two in international queer relationships in Asia [151]). When the young man returns to the theater, he notices a glamorous woman loudly eating peanuts or seeds. (Yang Kuei-Mei is identified in the credits as “Peanut Eating Woman” on imdb.com, but identified as eating watermelon seeds by Chan [92; 96].) She languorously drops her shoe, bends down to pick it up, and moves up close behind the young man. He looks back at her and after a pause, leaves the theater in a panic. His motives are unclear — perhaps he thinks she is a ghost. But his behavior fits the general pattern of missed/failed encounters.

In another missed heterosexual encounter, the ticket woman (Chen Shiang-chyi) spends much of the film trying to make contact with the projectionist (Lee Kang-sheng). She steams a large pink bun and attempts to leave him half, laboriously climbing up to his projectionist’s booth with one leg in a brace, which gives her a distinct gait that underscores the long duration of these shots, filmed in deep focus to “describe” the distance she traverses. When she returns after attempts to spy on him, she finds the gift untouched where she left it, and she sits down for a while before finally picking it up. Tsai records over two minutes of her sitting still in profile, with nothing but the discordant soundtrack of Dragon Inn. Tsai’s emphasis on the duration of the almost totally still shot causes the audience to pay more attention to the soundtrack. Indeed his film is not just about watching but also about listening to film. Often, what may appear to be mere background noise is in fact a complex ambient “soundscape” including rain and footsteps (recall Barthes’s invocation of the “texture of the sound, the hall”).

The ticket woman slowly limping to the projection room.

The ticket woman trying to spy on the projectionist.

Resignation.

Action: wu xia.

In comparison with the dynamic swordplay of the action film being projected, which is part of the classical cinema of the “movement-image” as Gilles Deleuze has characterized it, this scene depicts the pure passage of time. It develops into a purely optical and sound situation. Deleuze explains that in the modern cinema of the “time-image,” time is presented in its pure state:

"The time-image does not imply the absence of movement (even though it often includes its increased scarcity) but it implies the reversal of the subordination; it is no longer time which is subordinate to movement; it is movement which subordinates itself to time … The time-image has become direct … This is no longer a sensory-motor situation, but a purely optical and sound situation, where the seer [voyant] has replaced the agent [actant]: a 'description.'" (271–72).

Deleuze finds this exemplified in the cinema of Ozu, in which appear

“opsigns, empty or disconnected spaces, [which] open on to still lifes as the pure form of time” (273).

The scene from Tsai’s film acts as just such a still life, where we can only guess about the character’s thoughts or emotions as she hesitates before a situation to which she cannot properly react. Her expression is something like a vague “resignation.” But at the end of the film the potential contact or relation between the ticket woman and the projectionist is left open. We see him leave, taking the electric steamer with the half bun she left in it, and she watches him leaving but does not stop him. This same sense of “resignation” coupled with open-endedness can be found in the sign on the theater itself that says “Temporarily Closed.”

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