copyright 2008, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 50, spring 2008

Leaving the cinema:
metacinematic cruising
in Tsai Ming-liang’s
Goodbye, Dragon Inn

by Nicholas de Villiers

"Trick becomes the metaphor for many adventures which are not sexual; the encounter of a glance, a gaze, an idea, an image, ephemeral and forceful association, which consents to dissolve so lightly, a faithless benevolence: a way of not getting stuck in desire, though without evading it; all in all, a kind of wisdom."— Roland Barthes, Preface to Renaud Camus’s Tricks (1979) [Rustle 295]

In his evocative essay “Leaving the Movie Theater,” Roland Barthes proposes a particular way of going to the movies:

“by letting oneself be fascinated twice over, by the image and its surroundings — as if I had two bodies at the same time: a narcissistic body which gazes, lost, into the engulfing mirror, and a perverse body, ready to fetishize not the image but precisely what exceeds it: the texture of the sound, the hall, the darkness, the obscure mass of the other bodies” (Rustle 348).

This urban eroticism in the dark of the movie theater, the bodies sliding down in their seats as if in a bed (346), is crucial as a way to reinsert “queer” eroticism into movie-going. Barthes enjoys the anonymity and availability of the dark mass of the bodies in the movie house in opposition to the foreclosed eroticization of the place in the domestic well-lit scene of the television:

“television doomed us to the Family” (346).

That gay/queer [1] [open endnotes in new window] men in particular have made use of theaters for the purpose of cruising has a long history, which shows up in Midnight Cowboy (1969), Far From Heaven (2002), and in Samuel Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. But Barthes’s works suggest that “cruising” might also be thought of as a more general type of experience: the reader’s relation to the text, which at the same time “cruises” him or her (Pleasure 4–6; 27). Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) connects both these aspects: the situation of the movie theater as a place of the anonymous multitude cruising each other in the dark, and the drifting relation of the spectator to the cinematic image. Tsai simultaneously provokes fascination and distance, which best captures Barthes’s sense that

“I am hypnotized by a distance; and this distance is not critical (intellectual); it is, one might say, an amorous distance” (Rustle 349).

Both Barthes and Tsai emphasize the place and spatial conditions of the cinema itself (the shadowy box, the “big screen”), but also temporality (both in the sense of “duration” and “history”). They ask: what does it mean to leave or say goodbye to “the cinema”? Barthes clarifies the pun:

“Whenever I hear the word cinema, I can’t help thinking hall, rather than film” (346).

Tsai’s film fits into the longstanding genre of “metacinema” (from Sunset Boulevard [1950] to Scream [1996]), but it also takes on a particular local significance: Tsai’s choice of King Hu’s 1966 Dragon Inn (a.k.a. Dragon Gate Inn) — as the final film screened at a movie theater which is closing its doors indefinitely — indexes the rise and fall of Taiwanese cinema, thereby invoking the industry’s history in a wistful manner. Such a description of the historic place of cinema can also be found in Barthes and Delany, but this is not simply nostalgia for a lost era, as Delany insists (xviii). Instead, it laments the loss of the social contact which movie houses fostered [2] — social contact which is cross-class and queer: thus feared by social conservatives. Like José Muñoz’s discussion of the “Ghosts of Public Sex,” I believe that rather than being simply hopelessly nostalgic, the present is haunted by the virtual potential of queer ways of occupying space, as in parks, public restrooms, arcades, and movie theaters.

Before directly engaging with Goodbye, Dragon Inn, however, I must first consider the problem of how to read Tsai’s work, foremost in relation to his entire oeuvre, since Tsai sees himself as an auteur; next in relation to critical debates about East-West aesthetic differences and influences; and lastly in relation to questions of modernism/ postmodernism and globalization.

Beyond the auteurist repetition of certain motifs — pouring rain, a notable lack of dialogue, the same Taipei locations and actors/roles — Tsai’s work is pervaded by the overall theme of urban alienation yet strangers' potential contact. Regarding The Hole (1998), Tsai has explained:

“I think it’s my observation of people also being so lonely, existing in their own solitude. It’s what I’ve observed about Taipei” (Walsh, online).

Some examples of Tsai's work include:

Lee Kang-sheng (“Hsiao-kang”) seems to be almost a “muse” within Tsai’s oeuvre, [4] representing a version of the sexually ambiguous “rebel without a cause” icon James Dean (who appears in poster-form in Rebels of the Neon God, another metacinematic gesture).

These themes are in some ways a continuation of the concerns of the “New” Taiwan and Hong Kong cinemas, as Nick Browne has characterized them:

"The contemporary, one might almost say “modernist,” mode of Taiwan and Hong Kong cinemas adapts the art film format to the underlying and fundamental cultural trope of the period [the 1980s]—cultural and psychological dislocation … In Taiwan cinema … its central emblem is the aleatory form of metropolitan simultaneity and contingency … [A]s Fredric Jameson argues in “Remapping Taipei,” Terrorizer [Yang, 1986] adopts a European form—a sustained formal reflexivity … [which] gives us a kind of modernist picture of total dissolution of the traditional social and ethical complex." (6–7)

Regardless of whether this traditional social and ethical complex is “mourned” in Tsai’s works (a case could be made either way), Browne’s emphasis on the emblematic metropolis is crucial for thinking about Tsai’s films. Jameson goes into more detail regarding what he calls the “providential” plot of interwoven character destinies, or “the narrative of synchronous monadic simultaneity (henceforth, SMS)” which he finds essentially modernist. However, he notes that

"The return, therefore of what looks like a Western modernist narrative paradigm (the SMS) in the work of a Third World filmmaker (in the thick of postmodernity as a global tendency, if not a global cultural and social reality) can be expected to raise new questions, which do not include the relatively idle one, debated by critics and journalists at the film’s first showing in its native Taiwan, as to whether the director had sold out to essentially Westernizing methods or style" (119).

Like Yang’s, it could be debated whether Tsai’s work should be seen as “Westernized”—a label Rey Chow has interrogated for all its ambivalence in relation to Chinese films which receive Western accolades, such as Zhang Yimou’s or Tsai’s (155–56). Certainly, What Time Is It There? stands in dialogue with the history of the French nouvelle vague, with its metacinematic incorporation of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959). But Fran Martin has argued that this retrospective transcultural citation needs a more complicated explanation than Eurocentric notions of “influence.” She says that “an adequate understanding of Tsai’s cinema cannot be gained from simply observing stylistic resemblances between Tsai’s style and those of particular European directors” but rather that we need to look

“to the historical and cultural specificities of the local context of these films’ production, conditions that determine, to a great degree, the cultural meanings of the films’ emphatic European citations” (online).

Brian Hu has also noted a shift in Tsai’s work starting with The Hole, and discusses Tsai’s short film The Skywalk is Gone (2002) in terms of Taiwanese and Chinese rather than Western cinema traditions (online). Hu argues that Tsai’s films reflect nostalgia for Chinese and Taiwanese cinema history, and for the constantly transforming city of Taipei. I will return to the question of nostalgia later, but would like to consider the role of the city itself first.

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]).

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,


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”).

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.”

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]) 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.”


[1] It will be clear later why I have insisted on both “gay” and “queer” as adjectives here. But let me say at the outset that for me these terms are not collapsible (despite recent usage), yet are also not simply to be opposed in terms of generation, but rather in terms of a conceptual or ontological distinction. I take my cue from Moe Meyer, who argues that unlike the identities labeled “gay and lesbian,”

“Queer sexualities become, then, a series of improvised performances whose threat lies in the denial of any social identity derived from participation in those performances. As a refusal of sexually defined identity, this must also include a denial of the difference upon which such identities have been founded. And it is precisely in the space of this refusal, in the deconstruction of the homo/hetero binary, that the threat and challenge to bourgeois ideology is queerly executed.” (3).

A more practical reason for the distinction is that not all men who participate in cruising and homosexual sex would identify as “gay men” (nor might they identify as “queer” but here I use the term as a concept not an identity label).

[2] On this, see Miriam Hansen’s discussion of how “the cinema as a heterotopia converges with the concept of an alternative public sphere” (402) in early cinema’s specific social context of theatrical reception prior to the disciplining of spectatorship in accordance with middle-class taste. I would like to thank John Mowitt for suggesting this connection.

[3] Put variously by Lacan in “God and the Jouissance of [The] Woman”: “there is no sexual relation” (143), “the absence of sexual relation” (141), and “in the case of the speaking being the relation between the sexes does not take place” (138). (See also Kirsten Hyldgaard, “Sex as Fantasy and Sex as Symptom”). Tsai’s The Hole is literally structured by the gendered splitting of two apartments connected by a hole in the floor/ceiling, and the frustrated desire/ curiosity/ communication between them (Lee Kang-sheng as “The Man Upstairs,” Yang Kuei-Mei as “The Woman Downstairs”). Elizabeth Grosz clarifies Lacan’s assertion in terms which fit the fantastical unifying ending of Tsai’s The Hole quite aptly:

"The subject demands a wholeness, unity, and completion which it imagines the other can bestow on it. The symbolic, on the other hand, requires a subject irrevocably split, divided by language, governed by the phallus and the Other. Love relations aspire to a union or unity that is strictly impossible. The two can never become One. The desire for the One is, for Lacan, the desire of the Other, the Other beyond the other. … In other words, the Other always intervenes between the subject and the other. There is no direct, unmediated relation between the sexes. The obstacle to love, so central to chivalric forms of love, is not external. It is the internal condition of human subjectivity and sexuality, constituted as they are by a rift governed by the Other." (137)

Lacan might also be helpful for reading an enigmatic erotic scene in The Hole in which the woman in the downstairs apartment participates in (fantasy?) phone sex. Grosz explains:

“Lacan counterposes a resistant and residual jouissance of the woman, an ecstasy that man has (mis)taken for divinity. Woman experiences a jouissance beyond the phallus. But if this enigmatic jouissance is attributed to woman as her mark of resistance to the Other, at the same time, this jouissance is, by that fact, strictly outside of articulation and is thus unknowable.” (139).

This is clearly what makes feminists ambivalent about Lacan, and while I have tried to indicate how Lacan might help us read The Hole, I don’t think that Tsai’s work is therefore Lacanian. Tsai certainly focuses on jouissance, but in the end I have found Barthes’s use of this same vocabulary (in The Pleasure of the Text) more appropriate here. I am also mindful of the danger of too heavily “applying” French theory to Tsai’s work, what Chris Wood calls “the dangers of over-criticism.” Despite having used André Bazin and Julia Kristeva to speculate about Goodbye, Dragon Inn, Wood concludes:

“Although it is often tempting to compose grand stories in which Tsai fulfills the fantasies of European critical theory, ultimately what makes Tsai’s cinema so compelling is its light-hearted playfulness” (113).

Though Lacan is quite aware of the “comedy” of romance, a Lacanian reading may not help us pick up on the comic, almost camp effects in Tsai’s musical The Hole, either.

[4] In an interview with Danièle Rivière, Tsai explains his relation to the actor’s body:

"For me it’s very important to work with Lee Kang-sheng for example, because I’m very familiar with how he acts. … Lee Kang-sheng may have changed between two shoots, but I always find it easy to get back into working with him. For instance, over the last two years his body has changed a lot. Recently I had lunch with him and some friends and they said to him: ‘You’ve really filled out!’ I don’t find it a problem working with the same actors all the time because I know that people who follow my films go to see them all. Lee Kang-sheng, who is already very close to the characters he plays, is actually two things in one, and the audience can see how the real person has changed as well." (108)

In an interview with Michael Berry his language is almost romantic:

“At one point he [Lee] came to complain to me and said that he didn’t want to do any more films with me after The Hole. He signed a contract with a Hong Kong agent and went off to shoot Ann Hui’s film Ordinary Heroes. But I didn’t really take his words to heart; I figured that he would go off and do his thing, but I knew that he would be back when we had to make another film. But he was very adamant and said that he didn’t want to be in my movies because I never gave him a real part that he could sink his teeth into. … But I knew that if he went out and worked with other directors, he’d be back.” (381).

[5] This is why I find Tsai’s films “queer” rather than “gay,” simply because his vision of cruising goes beyond being “about gay men” in any sort of matter-of-fact way. Certainly Tsai has experience making films about gay people, as evidenced by his AIDS documentary My New Friends (1995), which he describes in an interview with Danièle Rivière:

"My producer at the time advised me not to look for a homosexual HIV sufferer. ‘Why not?’ I asked her. ‘It would be stupid for people to link AIDS with homosexuality.’ I went home to think about it, and came back to tell her that I would still prefer to use a homosexual. Personally I think that in Taiwan, as in many other countries in the world, there are many people with a stereotypical and rather negative view of AIDS because they think of it as a disease of homosexuals. So I thought that if they knew so little about the disease, they probably knew nothing about the life of a homosexual either." (92)

Tsai’s logic here is quite refreshing, actually, but beyond this documentary I would question whether Tsai’s other films are “about” homosexuals (to use his term) in Taiwanese society. Tsai has declared “I’m sick of people labeling my films as ‘gay films’ or ‘dysfunctional family films’" (Berry 385). I believe that sexuality is “queered” in films like The River, The Hole, Vive L’Amour, and his most recent feature I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (see Martin 84–85, 85n4, and Johnston, online). Vive L’Amour is to my knowledge the most often identified as having a “gay” character (played by Lee Kang-sheng), but Angelo Restivo, in the context of a reading of the film in connection with Antonioni, resists this particular reading. After putting “gay” in quotation marks, Restivo adds in a note,

“While promotional literature for this film calls the character ‘gay,’ I find the film to be ambiguous on this point.” (193n16).

I think Michael Moon’s concept of “sexual disorientation” — as a way of challenging a certain kind of “knowingness” about homosexual identity — might apply to Tsai’s characters, who also challenge our knowingness about their sexual identities. Like Delany’s personal-sociological reflections on cruising in his account of Times Square porn theaters, I do not presume that all the men doing the cruising in Tsai’s film are “gay men” per se. In this, I differ slightly from Kenneth Chan’s reading of gay cruising in the film. Chan argues:

"The gay men in the Fu Ho Theatre are ultimately ghostly not only because of their abject status in Taiwan, but also in terms of their appropriation of liminal spaces abandoned by mainstream culture and society. They ‘haunt’ the theatre in search of sexual fulfilment [sic] and human connection that is never to be … I do not seek here to judge gay sexual practices of public or anonymous sex, but rather to critique the way homophobia drives gay sexuality ‘underground’, creating liminal zones of ghostly existence. Tsai’s representation of gay cruising in the Fu Ho Theatre, therefore, becomes a powerful politicization of place where social wounds, in this case those of the gay community, are revealed." (99)

Chan makes it clear that in emphasizing institutional homophobia he has chosen not to valorize queer freedom, though he supports a “politically multivalent view of gay cruising” (99n8). While I am sympathetic with Chan’s stated desire not to moralize, I think he might end up doing so despite himself, however now on behalf of an unambiguously out and proud “gay community.” Again, this is why I find Delany so helpful, since he resists both forms of moralizing, without ignoring institutional homophobia. I should also add that I read Chan’s essay after composing my own, and have incorporated his insights into my revision.

[6] The three-year-old boy and grandfatherly Miao Tien are in fact a “ghostly” intertextual reference to Lee Kang-sheng’s directorial debut film The Missing (Bu jian) produced around the same time as a companion to Tsai’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Bu san). The two appear as “ghosts” or, in a more lighthearted joke, as gone “missing” in the theater in Tsai’s film. (I thank Chuck Kleinhans for clarifying this for me.) Tsai provides the back-story in his interview with Michael Berry, starting with the theater about to be torn down:

"I ran into the owner again, and he told me they were preparing to tear all the seats out and rent the space. As soon as he told me that, I could feel myself starting to get anxious. I immediately called my producer and told him to rent it so we could make a short film there … It was just around that time that Hsiao Kang [Lee Kang-sheng] was also planning to make his directorial debut with a short that eventually became a feature and was renamed The Missing (Bujian). I liked Hsiao Kang’s script so I decided to work with him on it. It was at that moment that I thought, Why don’t we each make a short in the theater? One is called Bujian [lit. “don’t meet”], the other is called Busan [lit. “don’t leave”], the Chinese titles of which together form the popular idiom bu jian bu san, which means 'don’t leave until we meet.'" (388)

[7] On this, see my article, “We Are the World Cinema: Chacun son cinéma, ou, Ce petit coup au coeur quand la lumière s’éteint et que le film commence” in Senses of Cinema 45 (2007) (online):

and the editorial by Rolando Caputo and Scott Murray in the same issue:

[8] Though they often try to show how Tsai’s particular use of nostalgia avoids potentially reactionary uses of nostalgia: specifically Chan reads the nostalgia in Goodbye, Dragon Inn in a way that “disrupts its conservative possibilities,” arguing that “this nostalgia, in employing place-based politics, allows Goodbye, Dragon Inn to question the cultural commodification of Chinese culture in the recent Hollywood interest in the wu xia pian” (92). Likewise, Hu draws out the ambiguity and ambivalence of nostalgia as it is deployed in Tsai’s The Skywalk Is Gone and Goodbye, Dragon Inn.

[9] Also, several of the characters appear quite pale and are lit with a slightly greenish light reflecting from the screen, thereby conforming to the conventions for representing “ghosts” in Chinese cinema, especially of the King Hu era. Thus, they seem more like ghosts by association with cinematic presentations of ghosts. I thank Chuck Kleinhans for pointing this out to me.

Works cited

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Barthes, Roland. “Soirées de Paris.” Incidents. Trans. Richard Howard. Berkeley: U of California P, 1992. 49–73.

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Burston, Paul. “Confessions of a Gay Film Critic, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Cruising.” Anti-Gay. Ed. Mark Simpson. London: Freedom, 1997. 84–97.

Chan, Kenneth. “Goodbye, Dragon Inn: Tsai Ming-liang’s political aesthetics of nostalgia, place, and lingering.” Journal of Chinese Cinemas 1.2 (2007): 89–103.

Chow, Rey. Primitive Passions: Visuality, Sexuality, Ethnography, and Contemporary Chinese Cinema. New York: Columbia UP, 1995.

Davis, Colin. “Hauntology, spectres and phantoms.” French Studies 59.3 (2005): 373–79.

de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.

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Grosz, Elizabeth. Jacques Lacan: A feminist introduction. New York: Routledge, 1990.

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Hu, Brian. “Goodbye City, Goodbye Cinema: Nostalgia in Tsai Ming-liang’s The Skywalk is Gone.Senses of Cinema (online):

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Films cited

The 400 Blows (Les quatre cent coups), 1959. Dir. François Truffaut. Criterion.

Chacun son cinéma, ou, Ce petit coup au coeur quand la lumière s’éteint et que le film commence, 2007. Curated by Gilles Jacob. Cannes/Canal+.

Dragon Inn (Long men ke zhen), 1966. Dir. King Hu.

Dragon Inn (Xin long men ke zhan) [remake], 1992. Dir. Raymond Lee. Tai Seng Video.

The Eye (Gin gwai), 2002. Dir. Oxide Pang Chun and Danny Pang. Palm.

Far From Heaven, 2002. Dir. Todd Haynes. Universal.

Fireworks, 1947. Dir. Kenneth Anger. Mystic Fire Video.

Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Bu san), 2003. Dir. Tsai Ming-liang. Homegreen Films.

The Hole (Dong), 1998. Dir. Tsai Ming-liang. Fox Lorber.

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (Hei yan quan), 2006. Dir. Tsai Ming-liang. Fortissimo Films/Strand Releasing.

Man with the Movie Camera (Chelovek s kino-apparatom), 1929. Dir. Dziga Vertov. Kino Video.

Midnight Cowboy, 1969. Dir. John Schlesinger. MGM/UA Home Entertainment.

My New Friends (Wo xin renshi de pengyou), 1995. Dir. Tsai Ming-liang.

Rebels of the Neon God (Ch’ing shaonien na cha), 1992. Dir. Tsai Ming-liang. Mongrel Media.

The River (He liu), 1997. Dir. Tsai Ming-liang. Leisure Time Features.

Sunset Boulevard, 1950. Dir. Billy Wilder. Paramount Home Video.

Scream, 1996. Dir. Wes Craven. Dimension Films.

The Terrorizers (Kongbu fenzi), 1986. Dir. Edward Yang.

Vive L’Amour (Ai qing wan sui), 1994. Dir. Tsai Ming-liang. Strand Releasing.

What Time Is It There? (Ni neibian jidian), 2001. Dir. Tsai Ming-liang. Wellspring Media.

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