Tsai Ming-liang's movie-palace elegy, Goodbye, Dragon Inn, hits San Francisco.

By Chuck Stephens

Goodbye, Dragon Inn
IN GOODBYE, Dragon Inn, the latest film by Taiwanese master of trancelike gazing Tsai Ming-liang, we spend an evening watching a scattering of cinema patrons in a decaying Taipei movie house that's on the verge of forever shutting its doors. But while movies about movies, and even movies about movie houses, have become something of a cinematic staple in recent years, there's something almost immediately unusual about Tsai's variation on the theme.

It's not just that, though there's a torrential thunderstorm going on outside, we're pretty sure that tonight there'll be no singing in the rain. Perhaps the sense of unease we experience has something to do with the way that, while the film this audience has ostensibly come to see – director King Hu's 1966 martial arts milestone, Dragon Inn – is one of the most dazzling action films ever made, more than a few members of the sparse crowd in attendance seem to have their minds on action somewhere other than the screen.

An international box-office success whose dazzling slow-build showdowns and razor-sharp editing flourishes helped revolutionize the aesthetics of the swordplay genre, Dragon Inn isn't just an extraordinarily exciting slice of world cinema; it holds a special place in Taiwanese film history as well. Having established himself as the hottest directorial property at the Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers studio with 1965's Come Drink with Me, Hu chose the moment of greatest success to break his contract with the company and set up shop as an independent producer in Taipei. It was a wise move for the talented maverick, as even Shaw Brothers was finally forced to admit. Many of Hu's subsequent films made ample use of his adopted homeland's natural splendor, and the gorgeous hills, woods, and watery vistas of the Taiwanese straits that became his backdrops must have doubly irked the set-bound scenarists at Shaws.

Perhaps it was the fact that Malaysian-born Tsai had firsthand knowledge of the immigrant cine-experience in his adopted country, which predisposed him to a certain affinity for Hu's films. Though while a budding cineaste, Tsai was part of an entire generation wowed by and weaned on Hu, the mature Tsai's aesthetic distance from the elder filmmaker might otherwise seem as wide as the waterways of those indigenous straits. But while some might be moved to condemn Goodbye, Dragon Inn as the slowest swordplay film ever made, it's precisely the film's dynamic saber clash of cinematic modes that makes it so unique.

Positioned in as radical an orientation to its historical point of origin as Gus Van Sant's Psycho, Goodbye, Dragon Inn functions as both a condensation and an annotation of Dragon Inn, as well as a complex celebration of that sacred text. It even manages to reunite two of the Hu film's sublimely serpent-faced stars, Sheh Chuen and Miao Tien, the latter of whom has spent the past 10 years of his career playing the patriarch in all of Tsai's films. Miao's feature debut, as it turns out, was as second sword to Dragon Inn's villainous Supreme Eunuch; he was also the script supervisor on Hu's film. But where Sheh and Miao seem largely locked in their personalized relations to the film on-screen, many of the other patrons remain more aloof – snacking loudly like the fabulously leggy phantom with a taste for sesame seeds (played by Tsai regular Yang Kuei-mei) or searching for some apparently sexual proximity to one another like the elastic-faced Japanese twentysomething played by Mitamura Kiyonobu.

No other film about the experience of cinema-going has ever seemed so fixated on restless movements ostensibly inappropriate among a well-behaved audience, or as intent on capturing the atmosphere of time spent in the cinema while doing something other than watching the screen. It's an atmosphere best known to theater employees, who while away hours in the lobby during screenings after working frantically during the intervals between shows. Indeed, the star of the film turns out to be a disabled female ticket taker-usher (Chen Shiang-chyi) who seems to have been teleported to Taiwan from American expressionist Edward Hopper's iconic New York Movie. Clump-clump-clumping as she roams the back corridors of the theater in search of a projectionist (Lee Kang-sheng, Tsai's perpetual muse), the usher even finds herself counterposed during one remarkable exchange of on- and offscreen glances with the always-in-motion swordswoman (Peggy Kuan) of Dragon Inn, and during another with Yang's ethereal sex specter, whose epic gams and twiddling toes are everything her earthly, long-skirted counterpart's aren't. Even the antsy Japanese kid gets his comic comeuppance when sandwiched between a screen-glued zombie and a pair of outthrust, unshod feet.

Goodbye, Dragon Inn's signature image is clearly the unforgettable screen's-eye view Tsai gives us of the just-emptied theater, through which that usher drags her clanking leg braces for about a minute and a half before leaving the camera alone to observe the hushed tabernacle without further incident until a full five minutes and 20 seconds have elapsed. In a filmography flush with lingering farewells, this is Tsai's longest of long good-byes. Yet given Goodbye, Dragon Inn's arrival in the midst of one of the bleakest moments in San Francisco's own movie-palace history, there's something even more arresting than usual about the scenes where various patrons come together around the urinals in the men's room, consecrated in the eternal pizzle of that cavernous cruise-oleum. The Roxie Cinema is certainly a fitting venue for the local premiere of Tsai's remembrance of movie houses past, but if you find yourself thinking, as you watch it, of the now-tarnished memory of another nearby movie palace, you certainly won't be alone.

'Goodbye, Dragon Inn' opens Fri/17, Roxie Cinema, 3117 16th St., S.F. $4-$8. (415) 863-1087.