On the Road, From San Fran to Taipei
Two new film series bebop and globe-hop
Ascending Dragon: Films of Greater China: AFS Essential Cinema
In the world of international arthouse cinema, minimalist Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang is known for his aversion to dialogue. From his debut film, Rebels of the Neon God, through 2006's I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, Tsai has been cultivating a style that features verbal interactions so brief they could be typed on the head of a pin.
A perfect example of this predisposition is Goodbye, Dragon Inn, Tsai's 2003 drama about the lost souls populating the regal Fu-Ho Grand Theatre movie house in Taipei the night before it's set to close its doors forever. The first line of dialogue in that film doesn't come until nearly 40 minutes in. Up until that point, the only human voices we hear come from the actors in the movie being shown on the Fu-Ho screen, King Hu's sword-fighting favorite Dragon Inn. In the audience sit a few scattered souls, including a young hustler keeping an eye out for possible homosexual liaisons and two old actors wistfully watching themselves onscreen as younger men. Meanwhile, a crippled ticket-girl wanders wordlessly through the theatre looking for the movie projectionist she loves. These characters' quiet desperation, their impassive solemnity, their detachment and disappointment are amplified by the almost-antic action taking place onscreen, and the visual juxtaposition says as much about their emotionally fractured states as any wordy soliloquies or extended verbal tussles ever could.
Tsai is one of the most prominent sons of the revolution in Chinese film known as the Fifth Generation, a revolution that rejected the confines of social realism demanded by Mao's Cultural Revolution and sought inspiration instead from the revelatory personal film visions of the great French New Wave directors like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. Like those influential Frenchmen, the great Fifth Generation innovators – Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and others – understood film not just as a source of art and entertainment but as a language we define ourselves by, as an influence so pervasive as to be essentially unnoticed. Tsai takes that sense of reflexivity one step further, arguing for a world where no individual experience is so substantial that it can't be recontextualized and given new meaning by its proximity to the projector and the screen. Which is why he is confident enough to let the dialogue of a 40-year-old action movie fill up the silences left by his own protagonists: He doesn't just believe in the emotional power of the movies; he, like so many of his contemporaries raised on Fifth Generation cinematic ideals, celebrates the notion that the lives of modern-day human beings can't be understood outside the context of the movies.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn is playing as part of the Austin Film Society's next Essential Cinema series, Ascending Dragon: Films of Greater China, a look at rarely seen movies by Fifth Generation directors and their artistic sons and daughters. Some of the other highlights of the series include Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, Zhang Yimou's take on the fractured relationships that develop between fathers and sons; Jia Zhang-ke's Unknown Pleasures, which, like so many "New Wave" films from so many countries around the world, follows the lives of young people struggling to find their places in the world through the lens of American films; and Lost in Beijing, by Li Yu, a film that, through the expressive use of handheld cameras and slowly defocusing lenses, puts its own stamp on the aesthetic philosophy that the more personal our movies get, the more the techniques used to make those movies blur the line between cinema and reality, until we can't say which came first or which influenced which, until – like the deflated heroes of Goodbye, Dragon Inn – we begin relying on onscreen dialogue and alternating flashes of light and darkness to give form and meaning to our own scattered lives.
All screenings take place Tuesdays at 7pm at the Alamo South Lamar (1120 S. Lamar). Admission is free for AFS members, $4 for general admission. For more information, see www.austinfilm.org.