Goodbye, Dragon Inn
  • Goodbye, Dragon Inn

I wonder if anyone at River East yesterday attempted a double feature of Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs, which had its second and final screening in the Chicago International Film Festival, and Gravity, which was playing throughout the day on several screens. The two films strike me as complimentary in that both are decidedly theatrical experiences and will lose much of their meaning if seen in any other context. Gravity exploits the dimensions of the big screen to suggest infinite space, while Stray Dogs uses it to give a sense of monumentality to the very small. In one of the movie’s greatest shots, Tsai sets his camera inside a supermarket’s frozen-food cabinet and looks up at the bustle outside. The plexiglass window reflects the vertical lines of the food racks at the top of the frame, making them appear to extend into infinity. These lines recall the tops of skyscrapers we see in the backgrounds of the film’s exterior shots, creating the impression that the awesome, terrifying, impersonal design of Taipei is replicating itself on a minute scale.

Earlier in Stray Dogs, Tsai achieves a similar effect with a long-take close-up of Lee Kang-sheng’s face as the actor recites, then sings, a poem while standing in the middle of a busy thoroughfare. Over the course of several minutes, the face in the foreground assumes the same imposing quality as the tall buildings in the background. Everything seems grand and mysterious, which is to say Tsai has succeeded in transforming the whole world into cinema.

It’s a rather fastidious notion of cinema, though, based on an inversion of what constitutes big-screen spectacle. That extreme close-up, which encourages us to chart the subtlest changes in expression on Lee’s face, represents a concentration of dramatic nuance wherein most of the action and mise-en-scene are contained within the actor’s being. Remarkably, this isn’t even the height (if that’s the right word) of Tsai’s minimalism. At the climax of his Goodbye, Dragon Inn, the director observes an empty cinema auditorium for minutes as the lights flicker on. The room seems to retain the loneliness and thwarted desire we’ve seen throughout the film—it almost seems to breathe.

This scene is one of the most thrilling I’ve experienced in a theater. For those minutes, the screen was like a giant spook-house mirror, offering the spectators a reflection in which they did not appear. The movie became an environment that expanded into ours. Alas, this shot is virtually meaningless on a television. Most of Tsai’s art is.

As I noted last week, Tsai claims he won’t make another feature after Stray Dogs. He’d like to focus exclusively on gallery installations, others have reported. I’m sure that Tsai will acquit himself brilliantly if he pursues that route (the final 14 minutes of Stray Dogs seem to promise this), yet it saddens me to think there won’t be any more Tsai Ming-liang images created for the cinema. Galleries have different parameters than screening rooms and carry different associations. Frankly, I’m not sure if any of them are big enough to fit what Tsai does.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.