They are very few movies that I come across anymore that I find wholly unique and difficult to classify, but Goodbye, Dragon Inn is one of them. No doubt this says something about myself and where my tastes lie. Anyone with a strong background and interest in experimental cinema, as opposed to art cinema, would find Tsai's film less distinct. My previous exposure to Tsai was several years ago with Vive L'Amour (1994), and there are some connections to that previous work here, such as the sparse amount of dialogue, the obsession with water, themes of alienation and emptiness, etc. But Vive L'Amour can be compartmentalized as part of Asian minimalism. Goodbye, Dragon Inn, however, pushes heavily towards the non-narrative avant-garde.
Coincidentally, the film I thought of most when viewing Goodbye, Dragon Inn is Derek Jarman's Blue (1993), which is playing next week at the cinematheque as part of the Jarman retrospective. This is not to suggest that the two are similar in any way. In fact, as experimental cinema goes, they are at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Blue consists of nothing but a blue screen and puts the primacy on the audio track. Goodbye, Dragon Inn has only two scenes of dialogue, not counting the film within a film, King Hu's Dragon Inn (1966). Also, while I strongly disliked Blue (but admittedly, this was almost 10 years ago), I loved Tsai's experiment. Nevertheless, both films share in common the characteristic of almost, if not quite completely, abandoning narrative altogether.
What I rebelled against in Blue was that Jarman, for me, not only abandoned narrative but left behind cinema itself. Goodbye, Dragon Inn on the other hand exists just about purely as film. The images Tsai composes are so rich that narrative would get in the way. What Tsai gives in the place of story is a reflective consideration of cinema itself, what it was, what it currently is, where it may be going. No other scene best reflects this than when the cinema itself empties and we as an audience are looking back at our mirrors, the empty seats that we too will shortly leave. The shot is held so long that it becomes a near Cage-ian experiment in what the audience will do when confronted with this emptiness. It is part of the provocative and perverse nature of the film that Tsai is commenting on the death of cinema as represented by the closing theatre with a work that absolutely relies on being seen in such a theatrical setting.