After the show, Shih Chun greets Miao Tien as “teacher.” Both men acted in the original Dragon Inn.

Dragon Inn onscreen at the start of Goodbye, Dragon Inn.

Playing to a full house at the beginning of the film.

1992 remake of Dragon Inn.

DVD menu for Goodbye, Dragon Inn.

Empty theater hall in Goodbye, Dragon Inn.

Beginning of Dziga Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera.

The “narcissistic body”: Shih has tears welling up in his eyes as he watches the end of Dragon Inn.

The “perverse body”: the ticket woman behind the screen.The shot fetishizes what Barthes called the “environs of the image."

In a rapid staccato montage, the character from Dragon Inn is inter-cut with the ticket woman’s face, creating a kind of “reverse shot."

A musical song-and-dance number from The Hole.

The surprising first musical number from The Hole: incongruous glamour in the elevator.

Metacinematic reference to another “Chinese Ghost Story”: The Eye.

Fumigating in response to the mysterious millennial “Taiwan virus” in The Hole.

“Fu-Ho Grand Theater.”

The projectionist closes the gate.

The bittersweet song plays at the end of the film, with the billboard for Dragon Inn in the background — and Tsai’s signature pouring rain.


Specters of cinema

Like Deleuze’s account of the shift from the classical (movement-image) to modern (time-image) cinema, the fate of the cinema itself in postmodernity is put into question in Tsai’s film. As the original actors from Dragon Inn, Shih Chun and Miao Tien (accompanied by a little boy [6]) [open endnotes in new window] recognize each other in the lobby after the show they seem to have become the living “ghosts” of this cinema. They wistfully remark,

“I haven’t seen a movie in a long time.”
“No one goes to the movies anymore, and no one remembers us anymore.”

The history of Taiwan’s film industry has involved several ups and downs, and Dragon Inn marks a particular moment in this story. In his account of Taiwanese cinema history, John Lent has explained the impact that changes of thematic content had upon the industry:

"About the time Grand [Movie Company] was going bankrupt, another Shaw Brothers Studio director, Hu Chin-Chuan, migrated from Hong Kong, bringing with him another genre of film that has endured since 1967 — swordsman. Hu’s first Taiwan-produced swordsman picture, Dragon Inn, came out of Union Film Company Studios, which, with its associated companies International Film Company and China Arts Motion Picture Company, then went on to build the largest civilian studio in Taipei — International Motion Picture Studio. Swordsman movies poured out of these and other studios at a blistering rate between 1967 and the mid-1970s." (64–5)

This history clearly determined Tsai’s choice of the film (we might also consider the fact that both directors are not originally from Taiwan: Tsai was born in Kuching, Malaysia, Hu in Beijing). In the beginning shots of Goodbye, Dragon Inn, which might represent the theater’s “golden age,” Hu’s film plays to a full house, but at the close of Tsai’s film there remain only two old men and a child watching. Tsai’s homage is underscored in an ironic way by the fact that Tsui Hark produced a remake of Dragon Inn in 1992 (directed by Raymond Lee, starring Brigitte Lin and Maggie Cheung). But one could argue that remakes are also sometimes a form of amnesia, and do not work the way Tsai intends his homage to work.

Lent explains,

“Besides home video, game parlours, more restaurants and parks and more mobility with the growth of the automobile industry, improved television fare is hurting the movie industry” (87).

In other words, urban real estate, changes in youth culture, and multiplexing mean that it is especially unlikely that this sort of movie theater would ever again be full of people as in the opening scene. It is then particularly ironic that I am writing on Goodbye, Dragon Inn having only watched it at home on DVD, the format David Bordwell and others have indexed as one of the reasons (along with piracy) for the decline of movie-going in East Asia and elsewhere. I am therefore only partially aware of the recursive effect of mise-en-abîme which would inevitably result when watching the film in a movie theater. The penultimate scene of Tsai’s film shows the lights come up on an empty theater, and after the ticket woman cleans up the trash and exits the frame Tsai lingers on the empty hall for what seems like an intensely long “moment of silence.” These few minutes also resemble shots of the empty theater from Dziga Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera (1929), both reflexive films acting like “bookends” of a particular historical era of a particular type of theater. Kenneth Chan explains:

"The Fu Ho Theatre represents a pre-video, pre-multiplex cinema, one that often occupies a single building, has a huge screen for Cinemascope movies, and has a large audience sitting capacity. As an instance of these ‘grand old dames of yore’, the theatre offers a singular cinematic experience, where everyone gathers to enjoy one movie, simply because there is only one giant screen. The singularity of the filmic experience, of course, implies that there is a greater imagined sense of cultural and social connectivity … The pleasure (and there is pleasure in lamentation) in Tsai’s use of the theatre, therefore, is a nostalgic one." (91)

We can also find this feeling in Tsai’s three-minute film It’s a Dream — his contribution to the 60th Anniversary Cannes anthology film Chacun son cinéma (2007). In that short film, Tsai’s voiceover recounts a dream of his family occupying the space of a movie theater in Kuala Lumpur. We watch them sharing durian fruit together (a notoriously culturally-specific taste/aroma), while a woman shares pears on a skewer with the man sitting behind her. [7] This sort of memorialization is even more apparent in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s contribution to the anthology, The Electric Princess Picture House, which like Goodbye, Dragon Inn juxtaposes the glory days of a theater with its spectral and decrepit present.

Like the almost still shot of the ticket woman sitting in the projectionist’s office, the long take of the theater presents a pure time-image, which is both empty and full of virtual tension or affect. We also experience this when Shih — the original actor from Dragon Inn — chokes up watching the final scenes of the film. Tsai singles him out in medium close-up as we watch his eyes well up with tears. It is in fact one of the only moments in Tsai’s film when someone seems glued to the screen. Other characters have a purely discretionary attitude towards the film, or a mix of distance and fascination, such as when the ticket woman stares through the back of the silver screen, her face beautifully lit with pinpoints of light, and Tsai inter-cuts the action onscreen, creating an odd shot/reverse shot “dialogue” between the woman and Dragon Inn’s characters. This full range of responses once again recalls Barthes’s division between the “narcissistic body” glued to the image, and the “perverse body” which fetishizes the dark theater itself (Rustle 348). The “sliding down” bodies Barthes describes perhaps represent a different kind of spectator as well, one more attuned to duration, the prolongation of long takes (or what Chan identifies as an aesthetics of “lingering”), and less to narrative suspense and the visual pleasures of identificatory projection.

Tsai’s unique approach to narrative and his juxtaposition of his own type of cinematic text alongside that of Hu’s classical swordsman film might also be thought of in terms of another division and “doubling” in Barthes between the text of pleasure and the text of bliss (jouissance):

"Text of pleasure: the text that contents, fills, grants euphoria; the text that comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of reading. Text of bliss: the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language. Now the subject who keeps the two texts in his field and in his hands the reins of pleasure and bliss is an anachronistic subject, for he simultaneously and contradictorily participates in the profound hedonism of all culture … and in the destruction of that culture: he enjoys the consistency of his selfhood (that is his pleasure) and seeks its loss (that is his bliss). He is a subject split twice over, doubly perverse." (Pleasure 14)

Hu’s film Dragon Inn is a text of pleasure that does not necessarily break with the patriarchal ideology of its culture (as Chan points out), whereas Tsai and his viewers are in the position of Barthes’s anachronistic subject. Tsai’s film simultaneously pays homage to the pleasure of Hu’s film and brings the audience to a crisis that unsettles our assumptions (about sexuality, cultural tradition, narrative, etc.). Even if his long takes cause boredom, Barthes points out that this is a common response to such disorientation:

“Boredom is not far from bliss: it is bliss seen from the shores of pleasure.” (26).

Like the romantic musical numbers in The Hole, Tsai closes Goodbye, Dragon Inn with a melancholy song by Yao Lee with the lyrics:

“I remember
Under the moon.
I remember
Before the flowers.
So much of the past
Lingers in my heart.
Half is bitter
Half is sweet.
Year after year
I can’t let go,
Can’t let go,
Can’t let go.
Under the moon
Before the flowers
Can’t let go,
Can’t let go.
I’ll remember with longing forever.”

Tsai has explained the function of old songs by Grace Chang in The Hole in a way which also fits Goodbye, Dragon Inn:

“On another level, the musical numbers are weapons that I use to confront the environment at the end of the millennium. Because I think that toward the end of the century a lot of qualities — such as passionate desire, naive simplicity — have been suppressed. The musicals contain those qualities. It’s something that I use psychologically to confront that world” (Walsh, online).

But are we then only talking about nostalgia? Many critics responding to Tsai’s film seem confident in this reading. [8] But Jameson in particular is suspicious of postmodern forms of nostalgia for an ungraspable past. And certainly, the death knell of cinema has been heard a few times already, so much so that people speak of the “deaths of cinema” in the plural.

However, Deleuze takes a slightly different approach to metacinematic reflection, arguing,

"It was inevitable that the cinema, in the crises of the action-image, went through melancholic Hegelian reflections on its own death: having no more stories to tell, it would take itself as object and would be able to tell only its own story (Wenders). But, in fact, the work in the mirror and the work in the seed have always accompanied art without ever exhausting it … By the same token, the film within the film does not signal an end of history, and is no more self-sufficient than the flashback or the dream: it is just a method of working … In fact, it is a mode of the crystal-image." (76–77)

Deleuze explains what he means by the crystal-image:

“the point of indiscernibility of the two distinct images, the actual and the virtual, while what we see in the crystal is time itself, a bit of time in the pure state” (82).

These terms provide us with a better approach to Tsai’s film, which presents us with a direct image of time and emphasizes the mutual implication of the actual and the virtual. What Tsai seems to be presenting us with is the actual death of cinema, but in his rather tongue-in-cheek invocation of “ghosts” — such as the intertextual reference of featuring the poster for the Hong Kong ghost film The Eye (2002) — he makes it clear that the virtual possibilities of contact that the cinema facilitated do not completely vanish. It is a cliché to call images “haunting,” but what Tsai seems to provide us with in the long final take of the empty theater is a form of what Derrida called “hauntology.” Tsai dwells on the specters of the cinema. [9]

This is also true of accounts of public sexuality in Muñoz’s “Ghosts of Public Sex: Utopian Longings, Queer Memories” and Delany’s book, as we are asked to remember queer ways of using space to facilitate cross-class and cross-generational contact between strangers in the city. In defending his positive account of pre-“redevelopment” Times Square porn theaters, Delany plainly rejects those who accuse him, along with Rem Koolhaas and the photographer Langdon Clay, of nostalgia for “the pre-AIDS golden age of hustling” (145). He explains that the sexual contact he describes in area theaters was primarily not commercial (thus not about hustlers). In addition,

“it is not nostalgia to ask questions such as the ones that inform the larger purpose of this meditation. How did what was there inform the quality of life for the rest of the city? How will what is there now inform that quality of life?” (147).

He explains that his account is

“forward-looking, not nostalgic, however respectful it is of a past we may find useful for grounding future possibilities” (xviii).

Tsai’s explanation above of the power of sentimental songs to confront the present likewise respects the past but interrogates the quality of life at the turn of the millennium. The death of cinema is not really the problem — as Deleuze says about metacinema in general — but rather the death of theaters like the Fu-Ho Grand Theater depicted in Goodbye, Dragon Inn.

Like Delany, I hope that cruising can be folded back into our thinking about the “promiscuous pleasures” of film, to use Paul Burston’s phrase. Let us return to Barthes’ meditation on “Leaving the Movie Theater.” Rather than calling for the destruction of pleasure, Barthes multiplies perversion and pleasure in favor of that which exceeds the image. Victor Burgin explains how Barthes

“sliding down in his seat, adopts a posture toward the film that cannot be assigned to a simple position on a scale between enthrallment and vigilance” (29).

In order to distance himself from the image or “take off,” Barthes complicates the “relation” between spectator and image by adding the “situation” of the movie theater (Rustle 349). Leaving the movie theater he feels sleepy, like he is coming out of hypnosis. And as we know from his diary, “Soirées de Paris,” his relation to films and to the entire evening is pervaded by a sense of drifting and cruising (Barthes’s experience of the cinema is also historically particular to a cinéphile metropolis such as Paris). Tsai’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn also reflects on the practices of movie-going and cruising in a way which reveals their historical and cultural contingency and mutual implication, and its “goodbye” to the cinema is intensely bittersweet:

“I’ll remember with longing forever.”

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