A sparse audience attends the last show in a cavernous movie house. Now all the more poignant for being streamed, Tsai Ming-liang’s 2003 “Goodbye, Dragon Inn,” newly restored, is a love letter to cinema and also cinemas.
The movie is set almost entirely inside the no-frills Fu-Ho Grand Theater in central Taipei. The Fu-Ho, which looks as though it can hold a thousand people, is a dramatic space, but the space on the screen, where King Hu’s 1967 wuxia classic “Dragon Inn” is projected, feels infinite.
At once a martial-arts spectacle and an intricate chamber drama, “Dragon Inn” is a landmark of Taiwanese cinema. Although it would be years before Hu’s movie would be shown beyond America’s Chinatowns, The New York Times reported on its international success: “The popularity of the film, which depicts feats that appear fantastic to the Western viewer has brought a wave of action films.” Tsai would have been around 10 years old when “Dragon Inn” arrived in Taiwan. For him, it is not just a movie but the movies.
The movies are also the places they inhabit. A sort of simultaneous double bill, “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” is predicated on the interplay of the projected “Dragon Inn” and the life of the Fun-Ho spectators. Patrons eat, sleep, cruise, hunt for fallen objects and wander out to the washroom.
The theater manager, a young woman with a pronounced limp, climbs upstairs to the projection booth and down to the basement, searching for a persistent leak. (Torrential rain is one of Tsai’s trademarks, as is the presence of Lee Kang-sheng, revealed to be the protagonist just as the movie ends.) These various activities constitute a ballet of daily life, reminiscent of Jacques Tati’s subtle slapstick or Robert Wilson’s glacially paced operas.
While “Dragon Inn” is highly kinetic, Tsai’s camera almost never moves. His “rigorous minimalism expresses a sensibility that is both tartly comic and mournfully romantic,” A.O. Scott wrote in The Times when “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” was shown at the 2003 New York Film Festival. “It’s an action movie that stands perfectly still.”
Most of the dialogue and music in “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” emanates from “Dragon Inn.” And the movie within the movie is glimpsed at from a variety of angles, its shifting light patterns cast on the faces of spectators. (At one point, Tsai creates a montage in which the theater manager and the “Dragon Inn” star Hsu Feng appear to exchange glances.) “Did you know this theater is haunted?” an audience member asks another halfway through. The theater is haunted, both by the specters on the screen and the spectators in the seats, some of whom turn out to be in both movies.
Tsai adds one more disembodied voice for the closing credits. The 1950s vocalist Yao Lee croons a wistful Chinese pop song about the presence of the past. She too is the spirit of the movies, a playback singer heard but not seen in countless films of Tsai’s youth and more recently “Rich Crazy Asians.”
Goodbye, Dragon Inn
Available for streaming at Metrograph.com, starting Dec. 18.