Directed by Tsai Ming-liang
With Chen Shiang-chyi (the ticket woman), Lee Kang-sheng (the projectionist), Mitamura Kiyonubu (the Japanese tourist), Chen Chao-jung (a young man), Shih Chun (himself), Miao Tien (himself)
This is nighttime and the weather is rainy. A distant figure is shot stepping stealthily, hurriedly, into a movie theater. And so begins a strange journey.
Entering a movie theater means anyway exploring a new world, designed by a crew, enlivened by a cast, delivered by a projectionist, cut off from the real, ordinary, dull world, so as to enjoy a new experience, dive into an alternative narrative of life, meet different people. But as the young man gets seated and then watches around him and away from the screen, then fidgets and moves around, and eventually wanders off the theater and inside the maze-like building hosting the entertainment venue, slowly, hesitatingly, obsessively, the whole movie-going experience gets warped, altered, tragically transformed.
It is no longer about entertainment but about inappropriate and impetuous desire, as the building is expected to be a cruising ground, a den where gay lust can be satisfied. This is what, in the final analysis, the young Japanese tourist has come to expect and then reckoned to revel in, even as the spots where he lands are hopelessly drab and seedy. It would take the contemptuous rebuff of another young man to put an end to the tourist’s dubious fantasy – by the way the first time in the film when he utters words, explaining who he is: so far the film’s soundtrack has only used the soundtrack of the film the Japanese tourist and a few, very few, other spectators have paid to watch, and “Bu san – Goodbye, Dragon Inn” is actually a silent film, where whatever happens to and is felt by the few dramatis personae is conveyed by striking long takes, a few stares, an occasional gesture, but not speech.
In an interesting, puzzling development, the Japanese and the other males seemingly looking for something quite different from sight and sound are not the only ones roaming the place. The beginning’s shadowy figure has barely come into the theater than another character starts walking around (both movements are captured in a splendid compositions shot centered on a corridor on a slightly slanted position). Another young character, but from the opposite sex, and badly limping: she is the cinema’s ticket seller, who is also tasked with cleaning up the place and inspect it. This is exactly what she is doing, her goings and comings getting edited in parallel with what occurs first in the theater and later the restroom and the corridors and empty rooms theoretically out of reach for the public. She stands for these professionals whose tasks are menial and invisible but are indispensable for the cinema to be open and working. If the men are ill at ease and mysterious, the woman is clearly sullen and wearied. She may be, in an amazing cross-cut, likened to a wu xia pian heroine, but she rather looks worn out and jaded, failing to connect with the projectionist, the last character to appear, distant and stern.
Poignantly for what is a collective art to be enjoyed in a community – the assembly of moviegoers sat inside the theater – the film conveys a pervasive, depressing image of solitude and sadness. In “Bu San”, the dreams, the magic, and the pleasure that films can create tragically escape the characters. The venue no longer entertains as it has mercilessly morphed into a maze of base desire, bad habits (these spectators who keep chomping on food for instance), and boring routine.
Two old men stand out in the nearly empty theater, one of them shot as his eyes brim with tears, the other as he wonders who is that other graying figure. The two bump into each other once the screening is over, recognizing each other, briefly talking, lamenting that no one nowadays goes to the picture – laboring orally the point the film has been slowly, elegantly, movingly making all along. But the episode has an even deeper resonance, imparting even stronger emotions, more heartbreaking feelings, more sobering sense of the end of cinema: both men are actually being just themselves, retired actors remembering old times and who took part in the film that the theater has been showing – one of them being the star, the other a key villain. They are Shih Chun and Miao Tien while the film is “Long men ke zhen – Dragon Gate Inn”, a masterpiece of director King Hu released in 1967, one of those splendid and vivid productions that made Hong Kong such a vibrant center of filmmaking in the Chinese world and ranked as a milestone of the wu xia pian genre. The journey of these artists has been a truly remarkable and exciting one, but now what is left is old reels played in places soon to vanish – one of “Bu san” last shots shows a huge poster announcing the movie theater would be temporarily closed, a temporary that rather sounds like definitive: as the ticket woman limps away from her workplace, as this is still nighttime and the weather is still rainy, grief and melancholy are the only reality, stifling the magic and beauty of the moving images, alas.