The screen blazes with the color and movement of the classic King Hu martial-arts film Dragon Inn, but quiet has long since fallen on the enormous Taiwanese movie palace projecting it. The setting for Tsai Ming-Liang's Good Bye, Dragon Inn echoes, creaks, and drips as if trying to summon one last bit of energy before falling silent forever. An elegy for a way of watching movies, Tsai's latest captures the theater's last night of operation in exacting detail, watching what passes for a crowd as they stare at the screen. Or, just as often, as they ignore it: Once a beacon for a city of moviegoers, the theater has become a haven for hustlers, tired old men, lonely employees, and possibly even ghosts.
A specialist in visions of urban alienation, Tsai (What Time Is It There?) doesn't so much mourn the past as look for the beauty in what remains. The impatient needn't bother to try looking with him. Reels spin by with no dialogue. One audience member's annoyance at another's use of a seat as a footstool practically counts as a subplot. Tsai devotes long takes to shots of a limping theater employee making her tortured progress down a hall, bringing food as a gesture of love that, as it so often does in his films, misses its target.
It could all be done much more efficiently, but any other approach would lose Tsai's unique mix of stone-faced comedy and dewy-eyed lyricism. It would also lose the power that's accumulated by the time the lights finally go down. As the rain pours down outside and the slow-motion dramas unfold within, it feels like a privilege to witness the last chapter of the theater's long, presumably colorful history, and a shame for that history to end. Yet for all the finality on display, there's a sense of hopefulness, too. After all, so long as there's a movie playing, no one really has to be alone in the dark.