In "Goodbye, Dragon Inn," Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang brings his unmistakable plaintive minimalism to a tale chronicling the final night of operations at a rundown Taipei movie theater now given over largely to despondent gay cruising. This feels like short film material stretched exasperatingly thin but nonetheless casts a certain sad spell
In “Goodbye, Dragon Inn,” Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang brings his unmistakable plaintive minimalism to a subject with echoes of “The Last Picture Show.” Chronicling the final night of operations at a rundown Taipei movie theater now given over largely to despondent gay cruising, this feels like short film material stretched exasperatingly thin but nonetheless casts a certain sad spell, graced by moments of droll observational humor. While it’s too slow and uneventful to draw new converts, admirers of Tsai’s work should constitute an audience on the festival beat.
In films like “Vive l’Amour” and “The River,” Tsai has explored contemporary alienation, loneliness, emotional repression, the static nature of existence and the agonizing difficulty of communication. Here, he couples those themes with a paean to Chinese cinema and a comment on the death of moviegoing as a collective experience.
The barn-like theater is manned only by a crippled female cashier with an unspoken crush on the projectionist. When she acts upon this attraction and struggles up the stairs to offer a gesture of food, he remains absent from the projection booth and keeps her attentions at bay.
Elsewhere in the cinema, a young man cruises fellow patrons. He comes close to making a connection in one of the building’s labyrinthine passageways with a guy who maintains that the place is haunted. This perception is fueled by the presence among the handful of customers of veteran actors Shih Chun and Miao Tien. The latter sits weeping as the final showing unspools of King Hu’s “Dragon Inn,” in which the two men starred almost 40 years ago.
Using his customary style of long fixed shots in which minimal action is played out, Tsai sustains a melancholy mood underscored by the beating rain outside the cinema. However, perhaps more than in other films — aside from the semi-musical “The Hole” — the director lightens this general pall with moments of unexpected humor. The annoying habits of moviegoers are wryly depicted as is the patient purposefulness of cruising in the men’s restroom.
With only two or three lines of dialogue aside from what’s playing on the movie screen, Tsai’s film is a typically rarefied experience that feels like a familiar exercise from the director. However, while the “action” is pushed to attenuated extremes, the drama has moments of poignancy, not least of all when the movie theater’s shutters come down for the last time and the staff and patrons disperse alone.