Excerpted from the author’s 2020 honors thesis
Hanging Out at the Movies: Nostalgia, Spectatorship, and Slowness in Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn
An (in)attentive audience from a bygone era watches King Hu’s film in Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003)
Principally defined by the combination of minimalistic narratives, the depiction of quotidian activities and atmospheric spaces, and the viewer’s experience of extended duration, the mode of slow cinema adheres to a certain set of formal qualities. However, despite the formal, temporal, and stylistic parameters that characterize slow cinema as a specific mode of address, slow cinema is far from static — it is a malleable mode altered by questions of genre, authorship, and national cinema. Several international filmmakers have become closely associated with contemporary slow cinema, including Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand), Abbas Kiarostami (Iran), Béla Tarr (Hungary), and Tsai Ming-liang (Taiwan/Malaysia).
Tsai is a particularly crucial filmmaker in critical and scholarly discussions about slow cinema. Tsai has directed 11 feature-length narrative films, each of which demonstrates a careful attention to the spectator’s experience of time through the aesthetics of slowness. Evidenced by the numerous aspects of my definition of slow cinema, the long take should not always be the only barometer of slowness in contemporary cinema, but it must be acknowledged that Tsai’s films regularly feature long takes notable for their extended duration: in Stray Dogs (2013), multiple scenes take place in long takes for over 5 minutes. While these shots continue for significant periods of time, the reliance on long takes is a key aspect of Tsai’s non-teleological narratives, in which the viewer’s lengthy observation of either one situation or several situations forms the foundation for the film’s loose and minimalistic narrative structure. Tsai’s films are also defined by an engagement with the quotidian and the mundane. In films like Stray Dogs and The Hole (1998), Tsai devotes extended time to characters eating, using the bathroom, and walking around aimlessly, often without any conventional narrative momentum. Though Tsai’s films typically lack a traditional plot and emphasize ordinary events, the experience of watching his films is far from mundane. Tsai’s films often take place in singular settings, in which the atmosphere is deeply felt by the spectator. Indeed, if there is a connection between atmosphere and the “weather” presented in a film’s world (Spadoni 59), Tsai’s films prove to be fitting examples. Whether it’s the crumbling, rain-soaked apartment building in The Hole or the ominous ambience of Stray Dogs’ abandoned urban settings, Tsai’s films are characterized by sensory atmospheres in which weather plays a critical role. The politics of Tsai’s films have also been widely discussed: writing for Cineaction, Marc Saint-Cyr makes note of Tsai’s thematic interest in “spiritual emptiness and confusion in the modern world” (11).
Finally, by relying on the formal characteristics of slow cinema, Tsai presents viewers with extended time to spend with the worlds of his individual films. Among Tsai’s work, perhaps no film expresses this quality better than Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003). Set in a Taipei cinema that is about to close, the film is defined by its minimalistic narrative, the depiction of everyday activities, and an engagement with settings and spaces in which atmosphere is felt by the spectator. Goodbye, Dragon Inn is primarily defined by the experience of radical slowness, featuring scenes that continue uninterrupted for several minutes without any conventional narrative progress. Tsai’s focus on extended duration, thus demanding the viewer’s careful attention, demonstrates a radical sense of cinematic time, favoring a presentation of quotidian activities and stasis that is extreme even by the standards of many examples of slow cinema. As such, the distinct duration and perceptual requirements of this foundational slow film highlight the durability of slow cinema, in which these core techniques enable individual filmmakers to create a film world with its own sense of duration and desired mode of attention.
Radical slowness is thus an indispensable part of Goodbye, Dragon Inn’s feeling and aesthetic. While the emphasis on such extreme slowness may lead some to picture a film deprived of conventional thematic and narrative intrigue, this radical slowness has a precise thematic and experiential function in Tsai’s film. By depicting the slow and sometimes uneventful development of individual scenes, Tsai opens up spaces for contemplation and reflection within the film’s world, particularly related to questions of spectatorship, nostalgia, and cinephilia. Specifically, Goodbye, Dragon Inn is a film expressly about spending time with movies in the space of a cinema. Indeed, Goodbye, Dragon Inn is primarily concerned with the nature of film spectatorship in theatrical settings: viewers spend extended time with a film in which the characters themselves are spending time with a film. While Tsai focuses on the viewers’ reactions to the film itself (King Hu’s 1967 Wuxia epic Dragon Inn), he also directs attention to the patrons’ behaviors that don’t involve the film itself — their trips to the bathroom, their exploration of the space, their interactions with one another, and so on. The film is as much about the viewer’s relationship to what exists around films and their respective cinematic spaces as it is their relationship to the film itself. Tsai thus engages with spectatorship that is both attentive and distracted, complicating the traditional view of a theatrical exhibition in which viewers are consistently engaged. The habits of the spectators in Goodbye, Dragon Inn force the film’s viewer to reconsider what it means to spend time with a movie, both in the context of a theatrical setting and in alternative spaces of viewer engagement.
Tsai’s film is also characterized by a deep feeling of nostalgia, especially for a different era of filmmaking and film-going. Through the presentation of extended time in a theatrical environment that is both glorified and fading, Tsai demonstrates a certain sense of nostalgia for a seemingly bygone practice of cinematic engagement. Similarly, as part of its nostalgic style, Tsai’s film engages with film genres and cinephilia, including silent comedy, horror and haunted house movies (as detailed by G. Andrew Stuckey), and the wuxia film. Goodbye, Dragon Inn thus introduces a pertinent connection between the study of cinephilic nostalgia and the feeling of slowness. Through the presentation of radical slowness, an examination of how individual spectators spend time with movies, and collective nostalgia for the cinematic experience, Tsai’s minimalistic aesthetic encourages viewers to reflect on questions of spectatorship and consider their own spectatorial habits. Expanding on insights from Song Hwee Lim’s study of cinephilia and nostalgia in Tsai’s work, Stuckey’s examination of the influence of genre, and Tiago de Luca’s discussion of the theatrical cinematic space, I closely examine the spectator’s experience of slow cinema through the lens of Goodbye, Dragon Inn.
Being in the Theatrical Space
Through the extended duration and altered attention that slow cinema entails, many slow films provide space for viewers to contemplate their own viewing habits and the experience of spectatorship. Slow cinema’s characteristics — the long take, the presence of quotidian activities, and the intensification of atmospheric settings — demand the spectator’s careful consideration and reflection of its images. Goodbye, Dragon Inn engages with spectatorship in a more explicit way than other slow films, as it examines the behavior of several viewers in a physical cinema. Despite its significance in this regard, it is not the first Tsai film to take interest in such a scenario, which is indicative of both a broader “intertextuality” (Lim 60) and the presence of “metacinematic” elements in his work (Stuckey 34).
What Time is it There? (2001) is a key Tsai film particularly for its engagement with spectatorship and cinephilia. The film follows Hsiao-kang (played by Lee Kang-sheng), a young watch salesman who falls in love with a woman (Chen Shiang-chyi) who is preparing to travel to Paris. The film features a scene in a movie theater that in many ways resembles a trial for what Tsai would subsequently create in Goodbye, Dragon Inn; Lim notes that the same cinema (the Fu Ho Theater) is featured in both films (66). Holding a clock that he took from the lobby wall, Hsiao-kang sits down in a mostly empty theater to watch a movie. The clock is stolen by another man, who has been following Hsiao-kang. When Hsiao-kang follows the man into the theater bathroom, he finds him holding the clock in front of his naked body, covering his genitals. Hsiao-kang rushes out of the bathroom and leaves the theater. This brief interlude, which is simultaneously funny, strange, and somewhat sad, provides a glimpse at how Tsai characterizes interpersonal interactions within the location of a movie theater. However, What Time is it There? also engages with personalized viewing habits, which Lim refers to as “cinephilic consumption”: Tsai shows Hsiao-kang watching a scene from Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), starring a young Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel (64). This presentation of individual spectatorship becomes an intertextual reference when Léaud appears later in Tsai’s film, speaking briefly to Chen’s character on a Paris bench.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn expands Tsai’s consideration of spectatorship, depicting numerous characters within its theatrical milieu. The film takes place during the final showing of King Hu’s Dragon Inn at a closing Taipei cinema. At the film’s start, the theater is shown to be rather crowded, full of patrons preparing to experience this film together. This is quickly revealed to be a flashback to the theater’s past, as Tsai cuts to a rainy night with a small crowd in attendance. Some attendees aren’t at the theater to watch the movie at all. A young Japanese man (Kiyonobu Mitamura) alternates between watching the movie and attempting to initiate a sexual encounter with another male patron. Though no encounter is ever initiated, many of the patrons seem to potentially be visiting the theater for this reason. In an extended scene set in the theater’s bathroom, we see one man exit a stall; seconds later, the stall door is closed by another man who remains inside. However, not everybody is attending the theater in the hopes of making a sexual connection: the showing is also attended by Shih Chun and Miao Tien, two actors from Dragon Inn itself. After the film, Shih and Miao, who attends the screening with his grandson, briefly reunite. Shih notes that “Nobody comes to the movies anymore. And no one remembers us anymore.” The film’s other principal characters are the woman who runs the theater’s box office and the projectionist, played by Tsai regulars Chen Shiang-chyi and Lee Kang-sheng, respectively. The box office attendant, who has a disability, spends much of the film searching for the elusive projectionist, hoping to give him a steamed bun. She also performs mundane tasks: sweeping up at the end of the movie, inspecting bathrooms, and waiting for other customers in the office. Lee only appears in the final moments of the film, locking up the theater at the end of the night and finally finding the bun.
In his essay on slow cinema’s relationship to spectatorship, Tiago de Luca mentions Goodbye, Dragon Inn as a critical example of how the depiction of spectators in a theatrical environment highlights slow cinema’s possibilities. Alluding to accompanying discussions of cinephilia and nostalgia in Tsai’s work, de Luca characterizes Goodbye, Dragon Inn as the “metareflexive equivalent of a wider trend… that ruminates on the fate of the cinema theater” (33). De Luca is interested in slow cinema’s frequent presentation of audience members in the space of the theater, using Tsai’s film and Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin (2008) as examples. He thus contends that slow cinema “[demands] a mode of engagement perhaps attainable only in the film theater,” describing this particular cinematic style as “unsuitable for domestic film viewing” (de Luca 24). In the context of Goodbye, Dragon Inn, de Luca carefully attends to a shot near the end of the film, which sees the box office attendant cleaning the theater at the end of the showing. After she finishes sweeping the auditorium, a shot of the empty theater continues. De Luca describes this shot as a moment that gives the spectator “too much time” to view the content of the image. As such, he contends that Tsai’s long take “[triggers] a self-conscious mode of spectatorship whereby the viewer becomes aware of the viewing process and the time spent in such a process” (29). For de Luca, Tsai’s lengthy shot of an empty theater and mundane activities “radically” takes the “hallmarks of contemporary slow cinema” to an extreme (28).
The first of these scenes takes place when Reiko visits the cabin in which the tape had previously been watched. From the outset Nakata implicates us with Reiko’s perspective when, as she talks to the receptionist, a POV shot tilts down a shelf of multi-colored videotapes that lands on a blank spine lying crooked in the corner. The film then cuts to a close-up of the ghostly white tape where a layer of static covers the image and a piercing screech dominates the sound track. With this close-up, the tape begins to take on its viral qualities as described by Carlos Rojas in his article “Viral Contagion in the Ringu Intertext.” Specifically, Rojas mentions “the distortions that contaminate this footage of the discovery of the tape mirror the static found in the video itself” (6) and thus the tape has infected our screen before Reiko has even watched it. The static and the screeching sound also define an aura around the tape which, according to Gernot Böhme, “is ‘something which flows forth spatially, almost something like a breath or a haze’” (quoted in Spadoni 60). Therefore, the tape’s static-covered and screeching atmosphere escapes the bounds of its screen and becomes an aura around the tape itself within the world of Ring. The aura with its accompanying sound arises again when the receptionist takes the tape out of its case and accompanies Reiko as she takes it into her cabin.
An empty theater reinforces Tsai’s emphasis on the space of the cinema.
De Luca’s argument about spectatorship and the long take in relation to Goodbye, Dragon Inn is not substantially different from the argument put forth by Karl Schoonover (whose scholarship on slowness is referenced in de Luca’s account) and Rosalind Galt in their volume on queer cinema — particularly their account of queer time and slowness. Schoonover and Galt use the example of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Mekong Hotel (2015), another film from a significant slow cinema director, to suggest a relationship between the formal qualities of slowness and the spectator’s experience of slowness in theatrical settings. Reading the film’s conclusion through the lens of boredom, Schoonover and Galt suggest that the boredom induced by slowness can be “felt as communal,” in which we become “aware of sharing a durational observation with other humans.” For Schoonover and Galt, this boredom leads to “an odd sense of communality,” as “we intensely sense our proximity to others” and “attempt to gauge” varying audience reactions (285). Though de Luca and Schoonover and Galt each emphasize spectatorial interactions in theatrical spaces, there is a clear difference between the experience of boredom and the experience of rigorously engaging with slow cinema and its accompanying cinematic space. The latter is the crux of de Luca’s argument, as he writes that “slow style, with its deflated pauses and rhythms, diverts attention away from the screen and onto the space of the film theater itself, thus illuminating the viewing situation as a collective situation” (38). A film such as Goodbye, Dragon Inn—one that deals with spectatorship as its principal object of inquiry—thus works to “solicit and encourage a spectatorial attitude grounded in an intensified awareness of the dynamics between film and viewer(s) in the context of the film auditorium” (de Luca 39).
Many of de Luca’s arguments provide unique insight into slow cinema’s relationship to the theatrical space. Goodbye, Dragon Inn indeed “laments the waning of the theatrical experience,” using the cinematic space to intensify its contrast between past and present (de Luca 32). Similarly, de Luca’s suggestion that slow cinema demands artistic control over the pace and temporality of its viewing, thus making museum exhibits and home video less than ideal, has significant merit (36-37). However, de Luca’s central argument — the prioritization of the theatrical space as “the most important site… in which to evaluate slow cinema’s critical value and validity” — does not always cohere with the opportunities afforded to the viewer of a film such as Goodbye, Dragon Inn (38). If Tsai’s film truly “[invites] us to study in meticulous detail the viewing process” (de Luca 39), it also devotes significant time to depicting spectators who explicitly avoid watching the film itself. In other words, the act of communal interaction within theatrical spaces that is essential to the analyses of Schoonover and Galt and de Luca is separate from the act of carefully engaging with the film itself. Tsai’s characters are constantly distracted from the screen by their surroundings. While the film presents a number of moments featuring engaged spectators — Shih Chun’s tears of joy at the finale and the ticket attendant’s viewing of a fight scene are two prominent examples — it is by no means its most significant subject.
Here, it is necessary to attend to a scene early in Goodbye, Dragon Inn. At the start of the film, viewers watch Hu’s wuxia story alongside the spectators in the film — a point-of-view shot allows us to feel as if we’re sitting with other patrons in the theater itself. The faces of other spectators are not present — only the backs of heads. For Lim, this “contrast between the two audiences” ultimately functions to “[indicate] a decline in audience attendance and the decay of cinema” (45). With this in mind, it is fair to say that the audience in Goodbye, Dragon Inn already lacks any sense of community — unlike this previous audience, they are now an audience of individuals, hoping and failing to attain some manner of communal interaction or viewing. Therefore, while de Luca’s assertion that slow cinema “illuminates the space of the intersubjective film theater” is correct, it is clear that Tsai invests significant attention to viewing habits that are not necessarily enhanced by theatrical communality (41). Rather than suggesting that a film like Goodbye, Dragon Inn must be viewed in a theatrical space in order to be effective, I want to propose that the film’s differing visions of spectatorship, ranging from rapt attention to intense distraction among the patrons of the theater, encourages rumination on the viewer’s own habits, both in relation to this film and more generally. Thus, whether we see the film in a theater or at home, we are able to reflect on how we spend time with movies and how that experience is shaped by viewing context. Whether viewers check their phones, stop the film to get food, or carefully attend to every shot, the slowness of Goodbye, Dragon Inn’s style compels spectators to critically examine their relationship to the act of watching movies. By presenting a simultaneously imperfect and nostalgic example of the theatrical experience, Tsai offers a vision of film spectatorship that isn’t defined by a vision of the idealized theatrical experience. Instead, it presents radically slow time for viewers to watch other spectators and consider their own spectatorial habits, both as they relate to the idea of spending with a film’s mediated world and the varied spaces in which we view and engage with cinema.
Cinephilia, Film Genres, and Nostalgia
Despite the critical emphasis on insignificant events and empty spaces featured in Tsai’s body of work, his films are not devoid of intrigue. As Stuckey notes in his essay on Goodbye, Dragon Inn, many of Tsai’s films are characterized by an engagement with film genres (33). Likewise, Lim identifies cinephilia as a critical aspect of Tsai’s films and his status as an auteur filmmaker (60). In regards to specific genres, the musical and dystopian science-fiction are present in several of Tsai’s films. The Hole takes place in a version of Taipei beset by a terrible virus, with musical numbers that interrupt the minimalistic depiction of a relationship between a man (Lee Kang-sheng) and a woman (Chen Shiang-chyi). Tsai repeats this combination of genres in The Wayward Cloud (2005), which again mixes splashy musical numbers and dystopian flourishes (watermelon juice has replaced water during a major shortage in Taipei). The Wayward Cloud also contends with the cinematic mode of pornography, featuring lead actor Lee Kang-sheng (playing a porn star) in several explicit and sometimes disturbing sex scenes.
Tsai’s gestures to cinephilia and genres are often accompanied by a visual sense of humor that is essential to the cumulative effect of his films. What Time is it There? displays a comedic impulse that is also found in Goodbye, Dragon Inn. In both popular and scholarly circles, Tsai’s work has often engendered comparisons to the films of French director Jacques Tati. Upon the release of What Time is it There? in 2001, critic Roger Ebert compared Tsai’s films to Tati and Buster Keaton (Ebert). Similarly, Marc Saint-Cyr makes note of the connection to Tati, writing that the “mastery over the temporal, spatial and sonic properties of cinema and a gift for melding comedy with commentary” can be found in the work of both directors (14). While Saint-Cyr does not highlight What Time is it There? as a singularly funny film in Tsai’s filmography, the absurdity of its concept (Hsiao-kang attempts to change every clock in Taipei to reflect the time in Paris) and its visual complexity make it an example of note. In one scene, Tsai opens with a wide angle overhead shot of several buildings in a Taipei city square. With an excess of visual information in the frame, it is not immediately clear what the viewer should be attending to in this shot. Eventually, a humorous touch emerges: the viewer sees Hsiao-kang reaching over the side of a building with an object in his hand, attempting to adjust the time on a large clock. This example seems particularly emblematic of Tsai’s humor: it is a slow and silent build to the payoff, in which the absurdity of the concept and the purely visual nature of the humor combine to provide an unusual sense of amusement.
The feeling of levity discussed in conjunction with What Time Is It There? carries over to Goodbye, Dragon Inn. Visual humor is an indispensable part of the film’s affect, even more crucially than similar films in Tsai’s filmography. Considering the relative lack of dialogue (there are only 12 lines of dialogue spoken by characters in the film), many of the interactions between characters are punctuated by awkward glances and pauses that manifest as silent humor — indeed, Tsai carefully depicts the sometimes uncomfortable nature of watching movies alongside other people. One scene finds the Japanese man leaning forward, only for another spectator’s feet to appear next to his face. Another patron then sits next to him, causing the Japanese man to lean his face closer to the spectator’s feet. When he suddenly notices this, he expresses shock and jolts backwards, marking perhaps the most notable instance of a traditional punchline found in Tsai’s work. Other scenes are humorous in part because of Tsai’s presentation of extended duration. In one of the film’s most overtly humorous scenes, the Japanese tourist approaches a stoic Shih, getting closer and closer as he indicates his sexual interest. Shih never moves; eventually, the Japanese man runs away, prompting Shih to slowly turn his head to the left. At another point, the Japanese man visits the theater bathroom and uses a urinal. He stands at the urinal, next to another patron, for minutes. As the scene progresses, other guests enter and exit the bathroom, but no forward narrative momentum is ever achieved within the scene. The extreme duration of the scene leaves viewers to ponder its purpose. Are the patrons waiting to be propositioned? Are they all urinating for several minutes at a time? The former seems likely, but regardless of the scene’s true purpose, viewers are left to laugh at its absurd extremity.
While Goodbye, Dragon Inn cannot claim to belong to a single genre, it also continues Tsai’s engagement with a wide range of film genres beyond the vague mode of silent comedy. First, the spectators in the film are themselves watching a genre film: King Hu’s Dragon Inn is one of the most significant examples of the wuxia film, the genre of Chinese cinema that blends martial arts action with historical narratives. Though the diegetic world of Goodbye, Dragon Inn does not necessarily bear any generic similarities to Hu’s film, the images and sounds of this classic genre film are omnipresent in the world of Tsai’s film. Tsai occasionally displays scenes from the film itself, often to demonstrate a particular connection between the character/spectator and the content of the film. In one notable case, Tsai breaks from his reliance on long takes to mirror Hu’s editing style, rapidly cutting between the image of Dragon Inn’s heroine (played by Lingfeng Shangguan) and the gaze of the theater’s female box office attendant. Later, Tsai creates another shot/reverse shot pattern between the final fight scene in the film and Shih Chun’s intensely emotional reaction as part of the audience: tears slowly stream down his face as the heroes of Dragon Inn triumph over their fearsome adversary. Whether Goodbye, Dragon Inn’s viewer has any connection to the material is irrelevant: the emotional connection felt by the characters, as well as the contrast between the energy and excitement of the wuxia genre and the slowness of Tsai’s vision of spectatorship, puts the genre in play.
Perhaps even more critical for Tsai is the sound of the film-within-a-film. While G. Andrew Stuckey claims that the sound of dialogue from Dragon Inn is an “acousmêtre,” a concept from Michel Chion that is defined as “a voice whose origin cannot be located” (41), it also often serves as a replacement for dialogic exchanges between the silent spectators, occasionally mirroring their actions and unspoken interactions. When the Japanese man propositions and closely approaches Shih Chun in the theater, viewers hear a character in the film say “You come to this wilderness… for what purpose?” If the Japanese man is seeking to discover whether this patron is likewise attending the screening in the hopes of initiating a sexual encounter, the humorous use of dialogue from a fictional genre narrative to communicate a character’s inner thoughts and desires (a familiar Tsai strategy in his musicals) adds weight to the interaction.
Tsai also adds a ghostly dimension to the narrative, playing with the conventions of the horror genre, as discussed by Stuckey. While the silence of the film is overwhelming and occasionally eerie, the presence of ghosts in the theater is explicitly noted in one of the film’s few lines of dialogue. Meandering through the theater, the Japanese man bumps into another patron (Chen Chao-jung), who tells him “Do you know this theater is haunted? This theater is haunted. Ghosts.” The Japanese visitor is clearly unnerved by this revelation, but this encounter once again has a humorous payoff. When the Japanese man returns to his seat, he notices a female spectator eating loudly behind him. She later drops her shoe and crawls down to the next row to retrieve it; when the Japanese man turns back around, she’s gone. Scared that the revelation from Chen’s character was actually correct, the Japanese man frantically picks up his belongings and leaves the theater. However, the mention of ghostly presences extends beyond this gag: Stuckey notes that the visual language of the horror film is in play, thus suggesting that the Taipei cinema is itself “a haunted house” (33). Stuckey closely studies the visual portrayal of the cinema, noting that its “leaking roof, ragged strips of cloth… narrow passageways, steep and twisting staircases” all resemble architecture from famous horror movies (35-36). Similarly, Stuckey writes that the film’s characters often reflect horror archetypes, including spectators that resemble vampires and zombies, as part of the film’s “coherent method of citation” (36). Stuckey thus contends that the spectators themselves are ghosts, who have “returned to the theatre… to reclaim their pasts.” As such, these ghosts function as “atomized individuals in proximity to each other but remaining incapable of creating relationships among themselves” (35).
The idea of returning to the past recalls the concept of nostalgia. Cinephilic nostalgia is essential to many interpretations of Goodbye, Dragon Inn, including de Luca’s analysis of the theatrical setting and Lim’s broader assessment of Tsai’s filmography. Lim’s expansive investigation of nostalgia in Tsai’s films is particularly useful in this regard, as it reveals how Tsai’s “films are uniquely placed to illuminate the relationship between slowness and cinephilia” (43). Naturally, central to Lim’s argument about cinephilia in Tsai’s films is Goodbye, Dragon Inn. Lim succinctly states that Tsai “reformulates notions of authorship, cinephilia, and nostalgia into a unique vision that has become paradigmatic of a cinema of slowness” (45). Tsai’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn thus represents the mode of slow cinema’s engagement with these ideas.
Lim identifies a number of intensely nostalgic moments in Goodbye, Dragon Inn, many of which have been addressed in previous sections. The final exchange between Shih Chun and Miao Tien, the emotional responses of spectators in the theater, and the very presence of Hu’s film within the setting of the theater are all addressed as elements of Tsai’s nostalgia for a different era of cinema. In fact, the very presence of Shih and Miao as members of the cast can be seen as nostalgic — Lim describes the “corporeality of the two aging actors” as part of the film’s melancholic feeling (67). Furthermore, Lim attributes a feeling of nostalgia to the lengthy shot of the empty theater at the film’s end, in part due to Tsai’s own revelation that he simply ran out of film, rather than making a deliberate choice to end the sequence (68). However, the most important concept in Lim’s reading of the film is that of “ambivalent nostalgia,” which he attributes to the conflicting influences of genre films and European art cinema in Tsai’s work (70). An earlier description of Tsai’s portrayal of the empty theater at the film’s end carries the feeling of ambivalence. Lim writes that this scene “urges the audience to take a long hard look at the state of a decaying cinema and to reflect upon the material conditions that have brought about this state of affairs” (69).
If that scene—and the film as a whole—rely on a certain ambivalent, passive nostalgia that employs the tools of slow cinema, that characterization broadly defines the presence of nostalgia in Goodbye, Dragon Inn. While Lim and Stuckey both note Tsai’s references to cinema’s past in the form of King Hu’s film and the brief depiction of a robust and tranquil audience at the film’s start, Tsai makes no real attempt to return to the past or recreate the theater’s former prestige. Tsai instead creates an explicit contrast between a glorious past and a crumbling present, using the film theater as an emblem of an illustrious past. Tsai depicts an empty theater of mostly isolated spectators, whose presence as individuals in the theater lacks any semblance of communality. Instead, even within a communal space, the feelings of loss and distraction are still overwhelming. While de Luca suggests that Tsai’s slow cinema necessitates the embrace of the theatrical experience, Goodbye, Dragon Inn presents a vision of this experience that is as nostalgic and mournful as it is bluntly realistic and unsatisfying.
Spending Slow Time with Cinema
If, as Lim suggests in his account of the director’s cinephilia and nostalgia, Tsai’s perception of these concepts is rooted in an understanding of European and international arthouse cinema and their accompanying discourses, Goodbye, Dragon Inn seems to embody the current view of cinephilia and spectatorship in relation to those discussions. Namely, Lim identifies a “singular obsession with the death of cinema” among contemporary cinephiles (56). Even beyond the image of the empty theater, this death is evident in Tsai’s film: as Shih says to Miao at the end of the film, “No one comes to the movies anymore,” thus highlighting the tragic absence of the collective cinematic experience in modern culture. However, while Tsai indeed uses slowness and the framework of international arthouse cinema to recreate and mourn a particular spectatorial experience, this suggestion only captures half of the story. Later in his chapter on cinephilia in Tsai’s work, Lim draws connections between contemporary discussions of the death of cinema with older debates over what precisely constitutes cinephilia — in particular, the clash between the appreciation of art cinema exemplified by Susan Sontag and the embrace of Hollywood auteurs by French critics at Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1950s and 60s (58). In her 1996 essay “The Decay of Cinema,” Sontag already proclaimed the death of cinema, highlighting both the economic restrictions and the replacement of films that embodied “an art unlike any other” with new films filled with “assaultive images” (Sontag). Sontag’s essay was also mentioned in Jonathan Romney’s early discussion of slow films, thus suggesting a link between a particular definition of cinephilia — Sontag’s love of art films and the view of European art cinema that Lim associates with Tsai — and the cinema of slowness more generally (Romney). In this view, slow cinema solidifies itself as the last bastion of a specific artistic tradition against the monolithic structure of commercial filmmaking, in which the death of cinema and the continual lament of that death are interwoven.
This interpretation of Tsai’s slow cinema is not entirely correct — instead, it illuminates the numerous contradictions offered by Goodbye, Dragon Inn. The methodical slowness of Goodbye, Dragon Inn indeed draws on the formal lineage of contemporary slow cinema and its critical European and Asian precursors (Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, Chantal Akerman, etc.) to present a particular experience of cinephilia and the theatrical space. However, as I have demonstrated throughout this essay, Tsai simultaneously offers gestures to popular genres in the form of the wuxia film, silent comedy, and horror, references that would seem incongruous with a view of slow cinema in which it is the pure modern equivalent of mid-century international art cinema. Though Lim indeed makes note of this blend of influences (70), it is a much more significant concern in this film. In relation to spectatorship, Tsai presents a multiplicity of spectators and related interactions in this theatrical space, but this depiction serves as both an embrace of the spectatorial habits offered by theatrical moviegoing (as discussed by de Luca) and a chance for the viewer to consider their own viewing habits, regardless of theatrical presentation. And while there is a mournful dimension to Goodbye, Dragon Inn’s treatment of cinephilia and spectatorship, the extended time and space for self-reflection and examination ultimately results in a range of critical possibilities for the spectator, removed from a purely emotional attachment. Thus, through radical slowness, the cinephilic framework of both international art films and genre cinema, and nostalgic overtones, Goodbye, Dragon Inn encourages a certain mode of reflection that complements its sensory and emotional dimensions.
Considering Lim’s assertion that the combination of “authorship, cinephilia, and nostalgia” in Tsai’s films is “paradigmatic of a cinema of slowness” (45), Goodbye, Dragon Inn’s engagement with these ideas must be defined by its relationship to the mode of slow cinema. As a film set in the space of a theater, the features of slow cinema — minimalistic narratives, quotidian activities, and atmospheric settings — provide viewers with the tools to spend extended critical time examining this film’s specific intersection of nostalgia, spectatorship, and cinephilia. Indeed, the possibilities offered by the film are only achievable through Tsai’s engagement with radical slowness. However, if Tsai’s work is in fact “paradigmatic” of the mode, then we must also emphasize that slow cinema is not nearly as static and rigid as often suggested. Rather than addressing slow cinema as a political, non-commercial mode relegated to the festival circuit, the allusions within Goodbye, Dragon Inn situate it as a film in dialogue with the past and present of both popular Hollywood cinema and art cinema. Thus, even in perhaps the consummate slow film of Goodbye, Dragon Inn, we can perceive a number of possible influences, ranging from mainstream genre films to international traditions, further demonstrating the fluidity between the form and politics of slow cinema and popular cinema.
De Luca, Tiago. “Slow Time, Visible Cinema: Duration, Experience, and Spectatorship.” Cinema Journal, vol. 56, no. 1, Fall 2016, pp. 23-42.
Ebert, Roger. “What Time Is It There?” RogerEbert.com, 1 March 2002, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/what-time-is-it-there-2002.
Lim, Song Hwee. Tsai Ming-Liang and a Cinema of Slowness. Honolulu, University of Hawai’i Press, 2014.
Romney, Jonathan. “Arts: Are you sitting comfortably? The slow, oblique existential film is making a comeback. Jonathan Romney couldn’t be happier.” The Guardian, 7 October 2000, pp. 4.
Saint-Cyr, Marc. “Slow Fuse: The Cinematic Strategies of Tsai Ming-liang.” Cineaction, no. 85, 2011, pp. 9-14.
Schoonover, Karl, and Rosalind Galt. Queer Cinema in the World. Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2016.
Sontag, Susan. “The Decay of Cinema.” The New York Times, 25 February 1996, pp. 60.
Spadoni, Robert. “What is Film Atmosphere?” Quarterly Review of Film and Video, vol. 37, no. 1, pp. 48-75.
Stuckey, G. Andrew. “Ghosts in the Theatre: Generic play and temporality in Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn.” Asian Cinema, vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 33-48.