Film Review – Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Bu San, 2003)

Just last month Cineworld announced it was set to close all of its cinemas across the UK. 127 Cineworld and Picturehouse cinemas abruptly seized operation, putting around 5,500 members of staff into immediate redundancy with no reassurance they might reopen in the future.

Only a few days later, both Odeon and Vue announced that over a quarter of their cinemas would be switching to weekend-only opening.

Thankfully a week or so later, hundreds of independent cinemas across the UK received grants from the Culture Recovery Fund with the help of Arts Council England, HM Treasury and DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport). Of these hundreds of cinemas, my local independent cinema was one of the recipients. Shout out to The Dukes and all of the wonderful folk over there who work tirelessly to bring as much entertainment and culture into the cathedral city of Lancaster!

Sadly however, any glimmer of hope we had for all of our beloved cinemas to get back on their feet and regain stability was robbed from them as of October 31. The government announced the second national lockdown of 2020, once again forcing cinemas across England to close their doors.

Recovery grants aside, there’s no denying that the industry is dying a slow and painful death. The future of cinema is bleak.

How we consume our entertainment has evolved and continues to do so. The COVID-19 pandemic has only further reinforced that. With our local multiplexes and local indie cinemas closed, we’ve had no choice but to turn to streaming and video-on-demand to watch any new releases. Furthermore, why would we want to pay the often expensive prices to take a trip to cinema when we can remain in the comfort of our own home with streaming services such as Netflix, Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema and MUBI at a fraction of the price?

It’s apt that Second Run are set to re-release a film that focuses on the closure of a cinema during a time where the closure of UK cinemas and their future is uncertain.

The film in question is 2003 Taiwanese film directed by Tsai Ming-liang Goodbye, Dragon Inn.

Goodbye, Dragon Inn focuses on Taipei City’s oldest picture house on its final night of business. A scanty audience and the remaining staff gather to watch King Hu’s sword-fighting classic, Dragon Inn.

With a extremely minimal, bare-bones plot there are only a couple of subplots to try and beef up the tale. One involving a member of staff trying to find the projectionist of the picture house to offer him a steamed bun. Another involving a Japanese tourist taking shelter from the pouring down Taipei City rain.

Wearing a leg brace, the ticket woman in search of the projectionist very slowly hobbles all around the decrepit building, struggling up and down several different flights of stairs.

The young tourist jumps from seat to seat, wandering around in hope for a sexual escapade, coming into contact with the few moviegoers of the cinema. His travels take him all over the building eventually leading him to a potential romantic encounter, only for his advance to be brushed off and told that the cinema is haunted by ghosts.

Ming-liang’s film is one of extensive long takes, single-shot sequences, wide angles, close-ups, almost no camera movement and minimal dialogue. Emphasis on “minimal dialogue”. The majority of speech heard on-screen comes from the dialogue in King Hu’s wuxia epic. In fact, there’s only two conversations in the entirety of Goodbye, Dragon Inn, each lasting less than 30 seconds in length. The first bit of dialogue from any of the Taiwanese cast comes almost 45-minutes into the 82-minute runtime.

While short on words, the single-shot sequences are plentiful in solid storytelling. They’re just as emotive and rich as THOSE shots from Alfonso Cuarón‘s Children of Men. The lack of on-screen action during these long takes leaves room for you to put yourself into the mindset of the workers of the Taipei City picture house, as well as its audience. The frames are composed with fullness of both mystery and feeling.

An example of one of the various long takes of Goodbye, Dragon Inn is during the young tourists’ gay cruise. Hopping from seat to seat until he believes he’s met his potential mate, Ming-liang excruciatingly depicts two audience members who’re sat behind the Japanese tourist loudly eating food whilst watching the film. It’s hilarious to see the pain and anguish on the character’s face as he tries to endure their overbearing eating, yet equally torturous for us to have to sit and endure their chomping, munching, slurping and crunching at the same time. It’s relatable. We’ve all had one or several experiences at a cinema where there is one or a group of loud eaters. Nobody likes a noisy eater, most certainly when you’re at the cinema. Just shush your mush and watch the bloody film!

What makes this one scene in particular so spectacular is how invested you are to the plot without even realising it. You’re undivided attention is given to watching somebody who’s struggling to pay any attention to a film that’s being shown because of what’s going on in his surroundings. The moment is tongue-in-cheek and very self-aware.

And that’s what makes Ming-liang‘s film so special. It’s a comedic, fourth wall-breaking experience that makes you feel apart of the audience at the Taiwanese picture house. With each lengthy take and one-shot sequence, you’re given the freedom to analyse every detail of every frame meticulously.

Though old and withered, the Taiwanese cinema has a certain charm about it. A radiating glow and comforting warmth where you can really believe there’s a lot of history beneath the dampened, rain-soaked, decaying walls. The colour palettes are sublime. This is largely captured through Liao Pen-jung‘s stellar cinematography and the 35 mm format. Second Run‘s restoration of Ming-liang‘s film is exquisitely executed. Dare I say, one of the best looking films I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching.

The second and final exchange between two character’s comes from two of the moviegoers as they’re about to leave the picture house, one of which began to tear up as the end credits of Dragon Inn rolled. “I haven’t seen a movie in a long time. No one comes to the movies anymore”. A throwaway comment at face value between two old friends. But when you stop and think about it for a moment – as you will because there’s almost a brief pause in time on-screen, you begin to understand the real weight and depth of that comment. “No one comes to the movies anymore”. It serves not only as a honest critique within for the closure of the Taipei City picture house, but as a bittersweet metaphor of the undeniable declining cinema industry in reality. Goodbye, Dragon Inn can say a thousand words by saying almost none at all.

I’ll unashamedly admit, I’m not well-versed with Ming-liang‘s back catalogue. Goodbye, Dragon Inn is the first film of his I’ve watched. But I can tell you it most certainly won’t be the last.

I recently saw somebody on Twitter say that Goodbye, Dragon Inn was “THE best film of the past 125 years”. And while I don’t agree with such a bold exclamation, I fully understand why they said that. Similarly to Tarantino’s recent triumph with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Ming-liang‘s magnum opus is an ode to the golden age of cinema. Desolate in its plot but the overall message of Tsai Ming-liang’s film is impassioned. A time where we didn’t have the option to not have to get up from our couch and watch our most precious movies. Goodbye, Dragon Inn is a love letter to cinema.

★★★★★


Drama, World | Taiwan, 2003 | PG | Blu-Ray, DVD | 23rd Nov 2020 (UK) | Second Run | Dir.Ming-liang Tsai | Kang-sheng Lee, Shiang-chyi Chen, Kiyonobu Mitamura

Special Features
• Presented from the director-approved HD transfer of the new 4K restoration of the film.
• A new and exclusive filmed interview with director
Tsai Ming-Liang.
• Madam Butterfly (2009, 36 mins): world home-video premiere of Tsai Ming-Liang’s remarkable modern-day short film interpretation of the classic story.
• 24-page booklet featuring new essays by curator and critic Tony Rayns, plus a personal appreciation by filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
• New and improved English subtitle translation.
• Original soundtrack 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 2.0 Stereo LPCM
• World premiere on Blu-ray.
• Region free Blu-ray (A/B/C) and DVD (‘0’) editions.