People our age have the collective experience of moviegoing, but today the experience is different with DVD, satellite, etc. You see these major changes over the past ten years and it hits you the speed of things, how fast these changes are happening. But there’s no way back.

– Tsai Ming-Liang1

When a film is projected onto a screen in a movie theatre the viewer is invited in as a sabbatical from the goings-on in the real world. However, when a film centres itself around this space, and considers and shows how it might soon be lost, what are we left to think and feel? Tsai Ming-Liang’s sixth theatrical feature, Bu san (Goodbye, Dragon Inn, 2003), explores this theme across many layers. It is a metatextual work set in Taipei’s Fu-Ho Grand Theatre on the final night of the cinema’s operation. Screening, somewhat anachronistically, is a print of King Hu’s Long men kezhan (Dragon Inn, 1967), a film that “represents [for Tsai] the Golden Age of Taiwanese cinema”2. In the 20 years since its release, the relevance and poignancy of Goodbye, Dragon Inn has only grown, aging like fine wine. The film speaks to Tsai’s stark commitment to auteurism and his love for the artform of cinema itself.

Goodbye, Dragon Inn places its meta- and intertextual preoccupations centre stage, incorporating the full opening sequence of Hu’s Dragon Inn at start of the film. We first hear the voiceover of the earlier film’s opening credit sequence and then see the film being screened in the cinema itself. The decision to feature the whole opening sequence served as Tsai’s “way of paying respect to filmmakers of that day and re-present[ing] them to new audiences”3. Immediately, a stark contrast is established between past and present. In this opening sequence, the Fu-Ho Grand is packed to the brim with cinemagoers (including a cameo from Tsai himself, sitting in the crowded audience) which then provides a stark contrast to the present era, where the cinema is plainly on its last legs. It is a rainy night, the ticket booth unmanned and the cinema almost empty. The grief of the loss of place is palpable. This contrast illustrates that while the theatre is still open for its final night, what makes the cinema so special has already been lost. 

Tsai’s work often draws upon the aesthetics of “slow cinema”, while exploring a distinct emotional mood and sensibility. However, Chris Wood argues that the characteristics of Goodbye, Dragon Inn that communicate slowness are used in subversive ways, as Tsai employs “long takes and deep focus” to, in fact, elicit laughter from an audience whose expectations contrast with that of those shown in the film4. Tsai vindicates this analysis, noting that “happiness and sadness are really parts of the same thing, so often the absurdity of a situation makes it seem funny, but the core of the moment is really quite sad”5. This type of humour is evoked through the Tourist’s (Kiyonobu Mitamura) various attempts to cruise the cinema and interact with others inside and outside, as well as the ticket attendant’s (Shiang-Chyi) caring attempt to offer the projectionist, Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng), half of her bao bun.

In real life, the Fu-Ho Grand had indeed become a place for cruising. In Nicholas de Villiers essay about the “metacinematic cruising” that takes place in Goodbye, Dragon Inn, he notes that Tsai’s work is also surrounded by an overarching theme of “urban alienation [in which strangers seek] potential contact”6. As the Tourist wanders around the Fu-Ho Grand he glances upon others in all sorts of locations, most comically single men wandering around in a storeroom full of boxes. There is a distinct loneliness associated with the Tourist’s journey. That is, until his first verbal interaction with a mysterious stranger (also the film’s first spoken dialogue except that included in the film within the film). He is alerted to the idea that the theatre might be haunted, ultimately scaring him out of the cinema.

Tsai consciously evokes parallels between his film and Hu’s Dragon Inn, building up the metatextual foundations of Goodbye, Dragon Inn. He felt that the films were very closely related, especially in the degree of attention both directors paid to public spaces7. This is bolstered by the fact that Miao Tien, an actor who features in several of Tsai’s films, got his first starring role in Dragon Inn. The choice to cast two of the lead actors of Dragon Inn grants Tsai’s film an extremely strong emotional weight. This is particularly true of one of the film’s final sequences. As Hu’s wuxia reaches its final climatic fight scene, Miao Tien and Chen Shih are shown to be the last people remaining in the theatre. As we see closeups of the two actors, now over 30 years older, we bear witness to their younger, immortalised selves. The weight of time and change feels ever present.

The audience doesn’t necessarily need to know that they are also watching their young selves – it could just be two old men admiring the youth of the swordfighters. A contest of youth and aging. Film can keep something eternal. It saves the youthfulness, but it’s also dying as well. Whatever you film is slowly dying at the same time. Whatever you film is no longer there.8

The film’s final image, a static long shot of the theatre space, now completely empty, invites and encourages an affective response from the audience and asks it to grieve the loss of place. What are we to do if we lose these places and spaces, other than grieve? The magic and profound impact of being able to watch films in a cinema has no limits other than this brute physical reality. It is painfully clear that this situation was not lost on Tsai. Song Hwee Lim writes that this final long shot of the cinema space “challenges us to rethink the relationship among slowness, nostalgia, and cinephilia”, to bear witness to the decay of cinema9.

Bu san/Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003 Taiwan 82 mins)

Prod Co: Homegreen Films Prod: Liang Hung-Chih, Vincent Wang Dir: Tsai Ming-Liang Scr: Tsai Ming-Liang, Hsi Sung Phot: Liao Pen-Jung Ed: Chen Sheng-Chang

Cast: Lee Kang-Sheng, Chen Shiang-Chyi, Kiyonobu Mitamura, Tien Miao, Chun Shih, Chen Chao-Jung


  1. Tsai in Jeff Reichert and Erik Syngle, “Ghost Writer: An Interview With Tsai Ming-Liang”, Reverse Shot (13 December 2004): https://reverseshot.org/interviews/entry/331/tsai-ming-liang.
  2. Tsai in Reichert and Syngle.
  3. Tsai in Reichert and Syngle.
  4. Chris Wood, “Realism, Intertextuality and Humour in Tsai Ming-Liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn”, Journal of Chinese Cinemas, 1.2 (2007): 105.
  5. Tsai in Reichert and Syngle.
  6. Nicholas de Villiers, “Leaving the Cinema: Metacinematic Cruising in Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn”, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 50 (Spring 2008): https://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc50.2008/DragonInn/.
  7. Tsai in Reichert and Syngle.
  8. Tsai in Reichert and Syngle.
  9. Song Hwee Lim, Tsai Ming-Liang and a Cinema of Slowness, Honolulu, University of Hawai’i Press, 2014, 69.

About The Author

Andy Le is a Vietnamese-Australian film writer and radio broadcaster who recently hosted the 3RRR summer show The Fourth Wall – a music show heavily inspired by a love of film. He is often in the mood for eating.

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