"Most audiences think my works are ‘art films,’" the Taiwanese filmmaker, Tsai Ming-liang, acknowledged at the Harvard Film Archive last week. "But I’m suspicious of that term because it means ‘films without good box office.’" Is there a paying audience out there for Tsai’s newest picture, Goodbye Dragon Inn, which Tsai previewed at Harvard prior to its week run at the Brattle, Oct. 29-Nov.4? "I’d like to poll you collectively," he told the HFA crowd at the end of the screening. "How many of you would go back to a theatre and see it again? How many would recommend it to your friends?"
Hands shot up everywhere, including from many Taiwanese students. Tsai, a jovial presence looked pleased. "And if you didn’t like the film, don’t tell anyone," he teased.
Goodbye Dragon Inn takes place in a crumbling movie palace in Taipei, in which an odd assortment of people gather for this theatre’s last picture show, a screening of Dragon Inn, a 1966 martial arts classic by the master filmmaker, King Hu. Tsai said, "I was 11 when I saw the film. I’d watched hundreds of Shaw Brothers genre works from Hong Kong before, but Dragon Inn was different. The music was very simple, often just a flute, and the characters were very real. They ate, they slept, they never flew around. But more, the actor Tien Miao, who plays the father in many of my films, is in Dragon Inn, playing a villain. He got famous with that role." Tsai has Tien play a grandfather bringing his grandson to the film, giving Tien the opportunity, as an older man, to contemplate his 1966 image on the screen. "The real star of the film is the theatre itself," Tsai explained. "Our art design was time, the aging process. Most people today are attracted to multiplexes and don’t like these old broken-down theatres with bad air condition, which are all around the world. When they stop attracting customers, they become a place for people marginalized by society. That’s the part that really moves me. It’s like this theatre called to me to make this film."