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Friday, October 15, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Erik Lundegaard
How to get cinematic whiplash. Step one: Watch any movie by a quick-cut, mile-a-minute Hollywood director. Step two: Watch a film by Tsai Ming-liang, the Taiwanese director famous, or infamous, for his long, still camera shots ("What Time Is It There?"). It's like going from 100 mph into reverse in a second flat.
Tsai is slower than life. He will hold onto a scene of not much happening for minutes at a time, and he'll keep holding long after his characters have moved out of camera range. His movies are long setups without much payoff. They are beautifully photographed, bleak studies of human isolation. They drip.
His latest, "Goodbye, Dragon Inn," takes place on the last rainy night of a decrepit old movie theater in Taipei, Taiwan. The theater is grand but sparsely filled, and you can almost smell the mildew. On the screen is a Taiwanese swordplay classic, 1966's "Dragon Inn."
In the audience? A long-nosed fellow (Kiyonobu Mitamura), who seems more interested in the few audience members and only the men than in the film. His longing is palpable. It's a big theater, but people sit close together. Later, in the men's room, they all gather at one end of a long row of urinals. The theater appears to be a gay cruising spot, but no one's doing what's necessary like talking in order to connect. Their lives are long setups without much payoff.
A subplot of sorts involves the crippled ticket girl (Chen Shiang-chyi) and the projectionist (Lee Kang-sheng). She steams a bun in her office. Then she contemplates it for 30 seconds. Then she limps down the hallway. For 30 seconds we see her take the stairs from below. For 90 seconds we're upstairs and slowly she comes into view, and then limps through two small doors. Where is she going? What is she doing? I'll cut to the chase: She's leaving half the steamed bun for the projectionist, but he isn't there. Ah.
The first line of dialogue occurs halfway through the film, and it's spoken by the projectionist to the long-nosed fellow. "Do you know this theater is haunted?" he says. "Ghosts." He means it both literally in the beginning the theater appears crowded and figuratively. They themselves are like ghosts. They are trapped within their own lives and can't make contact with the outside world.
Tsai is hugely popular with film critics, I believe, in part because film critics actually have something to do while watching his films. While the girl is limping down the hallway, we can take notes. Regular theatergoers? They can only watch helplessly. I suppose the hope is that by watching Tsai's films, drop by drop, wisdom comes. It does, but the wisdom is shallow, bleak and one-sided.
Erik Lundegaard: firstname.lastname@example.org
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