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You can say “Goodbye” to the “Dragon Inn,” but you can never leave

On February 13 and 20, UW Cinematheque offers audiences a chance to take in the theatrical interplay of King Hu’s classic 1967 wuxia tale and Tsai Ming-Liang’s slow cinema salute to the movie theater.

Header Image: A “Dragon Inn” swordsman in yellow prepares to square off against four opponents in black robes with red pants (top). A lone woman in white stands near the bottom of a large, darkened, and empty Taipei movie theater in “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” (bottom).

Movies perpetuate themselves. As in, every successive generation of filmmakers steals from the previous one. Once you watch too many movies, you’re compelled to watch more, above anything. UW Cinematheque, erstwhile hosts of art house cinema, are co-presenting two films with WUD Film in 4070 Vilas Hall—King Hu’s Dragon Inn (1967), on Sunday, February 13, at 2 p.m., and Tsai Ming-Liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), a week later, on February 20, at 2 p.m.—that make generational building most explicit and force the audience to ask questions of themselves.

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Theatrical experiences are at once communal and solitary. Is the point to see an image projected larger than life, or to sit in a dark room for a few hours? Martial arts and other genre films like Dragon Inn easily open the opportunity for a collective and shared experience, but Goodbye, Dragon Inn exists in a genre alone with Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin (2008) in its direct reflection of an audience watching a movie uninterrupted as its own subject.

Dragon Inn begins in the almost-mythic past of the Ming Dynasty, the year 1457 A.D. Two political factions are warring with each other. Why? Not really important. The more ruthless of the two, the Eastern Depot, have commandeered the titular Dragon Inn. They want no one else to be admitted, so of course an array of characters show up like in Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) where the Stagecoach is immobile. Xiao Shaozi (Chun Shih), a self-described loafer, wanders into the conflict by chance. He happens to be an extremely skilled fighter with incorruptible morals.

As the movie progresses, Xiao susses out more of the conflict eventually joining forces with the exiled children of a wrongfully executed general against the power-hungry eunuch who carried out the execution. Hu’s film stands as one of the early examples of the wuxia genre that  paved the way for martial arts movies as we know them today with fights that are genuinely thrilling and larger than life. Disagreements first expressed through social customs that mask contempt and suspicion boil over into expertly choreographed armed conflict with lighter-than-air leaps.

In Goodbye, Dragon Inn, a movie theater in modern Taipei shows the aforementioned Dragon Inn on a rainy night. The patrons of the mostly empty, expansive two-story theater wander around trying to see who else is using the theater as a cruising spot, who is there to actually watch the movie, and who is simply there to get out of the rain. What constitutes an event is completely refined from a traditional narrative. Getting up to sit next to someone, going to the bathroom, or ascending a stairwell are about as much excitement as the film offers, unless there is a canted glimpse of Dragon Inn‘s action on the theater’s screen.

The first line of dialogue spoken by an on-screen character (outside the projection of Dragon Inn) occurs about 40 minutes into the 82-minute runtime. “Do you know that this theater is haunted?” The sound of Dragon Inn itself is somewhat distorted, and, without diegetic music, the hum of fluorescent lighting and water slowly dripping through the cracks in the ceiling are the most prominent part of the soundtrack. Certain moments aren’t contextualized but still have great emotional impact both in spite of and because of the lack of explanation.

Rarely do we really understand or even consider the motivation of those sitting anonymously with us in the dark. The relative silence and dearth of dialogue invites us to reflect on our own experiences as theater-goers, those of us who are being swept along in the financial trends. Sure, one could easily write off the minimalistic Goodbye, Dragon Inn as “boring.” It’s arguably the point of the movie, to force us to consider who we are in the height of media stimulation. It’s also been called one of the best films of the 21st century, by Tsai himself in a 2012 Sight And Sound poll, and by decorated critic Nick Pinkerton, who wrote a book-length reflection on why it was the most significant film of 2003.

Taken together, the two films offer some interesting interplay—the high stakes late-night meetings of Dragon Inn give way to the low stakes of silently saddling up next to someone to feel out any desire for connection. An umbrella used in Hu’s film as part of a dual-wielding sword fight becomes a mundane and utilitarian tool for staying dry in Tsai’s ode to the theater. The past as we remember it never really existed, but that won’t stop us longing for it. The space to do so isn’t guaranteed, so best to seize opportunities at the movie theater while they’re still there at UW Cinematheque this month.

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