Amidst disastrous economic stagnancy and political impotence during the mid-century, Taiwan underwent a total economic transformation thanks to its exceptionally high rates of urbanization and industrialization known as the Taiwan Miracle, drastically changing both the geographic and cultural landscape of the island nation. The rapid expansion of major cities and mobilization of a previously agrarian population into urban centers, though miraculously lucrative, was met with ambivalent reactions from the Taiwanese who found themselves confronted with a way of life they were wholly unaccustomed with. The films that are part of the Taiwanese New Wave, a period from the 1980’s to the 2000’s that coincided with the Taiwan Miracle, expressed the contradictory experiences between material gains and spiritual depletion and helped assess the damage inflicted by a newly industrialized urban environment on the intangible dimensions of a city and its residents.
Tsai Ming-Liang is among the most widely celebrated filmmakers of the Taiwanese New Wave, whose films aim to reconcile (or at least account for) the polarities of tradition and modernity as they are experienced in Taiwanese life during this turbulent epoch. An example of Ming-Liang’s attunement to both Taiwan’s legacy and trajectory is his quiet masterwork Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003). The film is set within and around a Taipei movie theater during its final screening before it is permanently closed, and follows the scant congregation of patrons who, for the last time, have gathered to watch King Hu’s Dragon Inn (1967). The theater, once a communal gathering point and crossroads, remains a dilapidated and near-abandoned atavism of a more sentimental past on its final night, the flickering film projection lambent and dim when compared to the intensity of the cityscape’s lurid glare. The sparsely populated screening room is presented with a visual emphasis placed on the negative space of each frame, thereby foregrounding an unmistakable sense of absence. The film’s sparsity of sound complements the visual vacancy evoked by theater seats bereft of theatergoers: Dragon Inn’s score echoes off the unattended chairs, while outside a simmering hiss of rain spills in from the windows. The empty seats and uncanny quietude evoke a ghostly awareness of time’s transfiguration of the sanctified notions of a movie house into a haunted repository of the past.
The presence of ghosts is literalized by two actors—Miao Tien and Shih Chun—who starred in Dragon Inn now looking at the filmic echoes of their younger selves projected on the screen in front of them; their legacy as human touchstones are rendered spectral. The words they exchange after a chance encounter in the lobby are profound in their brevity:
-No one comes to the movies anymore
-No one remembers us anymore
Miao departs with his grandson, who will inhabit a future where the existence of movie theaters seems precarious, along with the significance of cinema altogether. Furthermore, the motif of ghost activates a dual temporal awareness of a death and an ethereal return, suggesting that even a corporeal loss belies the residual (yet indelible) traces that linger on.
However solemn the closure of the theater may be, the phantoms of the past offer an afterlife for those forms to inhabit the future. Be it a film and its actors fading from the collective memory, a movie house that once hosted communal reverie winking out on its wearisome final night, or a way of life buried underneath the concrete and glass of a metropolis, the potential for endless reanimation of the past offers stability in a discombobulated present, and in doing so becomes immortal.