Dir. Tsai Ming-Liang. Taiwan, 2003. 82 mins.
Tsai Ming-Liang will once again be taking his new film to all the festivals in sight and will see it displayed at a select choice of art houses around the globe, for another mystifying encounter that will delight his fans and baffle everyone else. Never an easy sell but enjoying a solid following of faithful admirers, his elegy for the decaying state of cinema culture - though less fulfilling than his previous outings and lacking the final moments of grace which distinguished such films as Vive l'amour and The Hole - will be picked up, analysed and dissected with as much fervor as his previous work was, from Rebels Of The Neon God on. Still, it is strictly recommended only to audiences who have had their fill of old-fashioned narrative Hollywood-type cinema and are hoping to break into new territories. This is the kind of picture that critics will rave about, regardless of their readers' opinions. For the record, all Tsai Ming-Liang films, without exception, have won awards and this one will not fail to follow suit (it took the FIPRESCI prize at Venice).
While the title suggests this may be a tribute to Dragon Inn, King Hu's classic martial arts actioner of 1967, which it is in part, Tsai's main intention appears to be mostly a memorial to a type of movie theatre on its way out. Shot in a huge, disaffected, squalid, old-fashioned cinema about to be torn down, it is about the last picture-show taking place there, about the rarefied, weird audience attending it and about Hu's film, shown on the screen. It is also about a crippled female cashier hobnobbing her way through all the vast, many-levered building, looking for the young projectionist who is always a stone's throw away, to share with him a last fortune cookie before the establishment will close down forever.
The camera roams through the dark theatre, the badly lit passages and corridors, the toilets and the backstage, juxtaposes the febrile activity on the screen with the practical immobility of the few spectators. It transforms the place itself into a world of barely discernible phantoms, a territory reserved for lonely people seeking some kind of company, either from those sitting next to them or at least from the moving shadows on the screen; a magical place whose mystery is lost once the lights are turned on.
The picture bears all the traditional imprints of Tsai Ming-Liang's work, whether it is the apocalyptic rain that never desists, the total loneliness that cannot be broken, homosexual undertones, a dry sense of humour emerging at the most unexpected moments and of course the incredibly slow pace, the careful composition of every frame which is kept long enough on the screen for the viewer to notice and appreciate even the smallest, yet significant changes, taking place within it, and the effective use of sound, amplified on purpose at times.
There is hardly any room to speak of acting in his films. Rather, it is much more a question of the right presence, and having managed to find two actors from the original Dragon Inn, Shih Chun and Miao Tien, placing them inside the theatre and having them greet each at the end of the show.
The first line dialogue comes after 50 minutes, and the following ones only when the two veterans meet at the end. Instead the soundtrack consists mainly of the Dragon Inn sound which accompanies the film throughout, from its Fox-like opening fanfare to the end titles (the images themselves are used only rarely) and a final song Can't Let Go, (in Italian the title is Only Love Remains) delivering the same kind of message this director has imparted before.
Prod co/int'l sales: Homegreen Films
Prod: Liang Hung-Chih
Exec prod/scr: Tsai Ming-Liang
Cinematography: Liao Peng-Jung
Ed: Chen Sheng-Chang
Prod des: Lu Li-Chin
Costumes: Sun Huei-Mei
Sound des: Du Tuu-Chih
Main cast: Lee Kang-Sheng, Chen Shiang-Chyi, Mitamura Kiyonobu, Miao Tien, Shih Chun, Yang Kuei-Mei, Chen Chao-Jung, Lee Yi-Cheng