Stop and listen: a ticking clock, a passing car, a siren off in the distance, the dull rumble of the refrigerator, your heart pounding in your ears. Our world is full of sounds that we never hear or think about, mostly because we won’t take the above advice. Watching a Tsai Ming-liang film, especially Goodbye Dragon Inn, is an exercise in this discipline. Virtually every individual shot is from a non-moving camera, has a wide vision, and lasts at least 1-2 minutes, often longer. Yet instead of getting antsy, I find comfort in these shots. This aspect of his films is very much a respite for me, where I am forced to stop and really listen.The first line of dialogue (outside of a film playing in the background) in Goodbye Dragon Inn occurs at about the 40 minute mark. At that point, I had pretty much decided there wouldn’t be any talking. And yet, without human voices filling the space, sounds are everywhere, from water dripping to solitary footsteps to a film playing in a movie theater.
The theater where it all takes place is alive with activity, both human and otherwise. People come there for any number of reasons, and often their motives aren’t quite clear. It doesn’t ever seem to be as simple as: there’s a movie playing that they want to see. Their interactions with others are rarely “normal” and reveal anything from discomfort and bewilderment to sexual attraction and friendship. In these ways, the theater takes on a sort of religious significance: the people file in to a large and “living” building, looking to have a common experience with something other than or removed from their experience, and trying to make connection with others. So this theater really becomes a character in the film. It facilitates any number of varied experiences for those who come.
The film really came alive for me near the end, with a still shot of the theater taken from in front of the screen. The movie playing at the theater has ended, and the ticket woman enters from the side door to clean. With the camera still, looking up at the seats, she slowly walks through the theater gathering trash. She eventually steps out of the shot and still the camera runs for at least another minute, probably more. As I sat, staring at the empty theater, now lit up for cleaning, it seemed that all the mystery and magic of the darkened room with the flickering images had disappeared. Instead, we were left with a plain and rather non-descript auditorium.
And then it hit me. It isn’t the theater by itself that makes magic. It is the people in it. We spend the entire run time of this film watching people watch another film, as they drift in and out of the theater. Sometimes when we watch a film, we get caught up in the images on the screen, as they move us and make us feel connected to something other than ourselves. Yet that’s only a small part of our human experience. Eventually the film ends, and we slowly drift back into the mundane reality of our lives. It is here that we seek the deepest connection, and as per the three Tsai films I have seen, where it is most difficult to find. People in Goodbye Dragon Inn go about seeking that connection in all sorts of ways, and all of them fail. Yet in spite of that, Tsai leaves us with a final sequence that I cannot help but read hopefully, as two characters continue to make the effort to connect. Maybe it will work out, maybe not. But at least they’re trying.