Why The Best Movies Are Boring

Why The Best Movies Are Boring


Goodbye, Dragon Inn and the Power of Slow Cinema

Goodbye, Dragon Inn, the 2003 Taiwanese film directed by Tsai Ming-liang, exists in the shadow of all that has come before it. The English title references Dragon Inn, King Hu’s vital 1967 wuxia classic, which looms over the film as an emblem of a bygone era of cinema-going. Yet, the direct translation of the Chinese title 不散 is “no leaving” which insinuates confinement. The past is gone, and yet we are still confined by it. Goodbye, Dragon Inn begins with Dragon Inn’s opening sequence displayed on the big screen, the boisterous music and thundering narration booming through the palatial Fu Ho movie house. The sequence sets the tone only to then completely depart from it. After showing the opening of Dragon Inn, the camera cuts to a shot of the theater full of spectators, only they are almost entirely obscured by dark billowing curtains. The shot lingers for longer than you would expect, a staple of Tsai’s style and what one might expect from a film described as slow cinema, an international movement comprised of work from the likes of Michelangelo Antonioni, Andrei Tarkovsky, Chantal Akerman, Béla Tarr, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul that deal in long takes, wide angles, and fixed shots. Despite paying homage to such a theatrical piece of cinema as Dragon InnGoodbye, Dragon Inn’s characters are muted, and its camera is static. Rather than try to recreate the magic of the wuxia film, effectively bridging the gap between past and present, Goodbye, Dragon Inn is obsessed with the chasm between then and now and uses duration as a tool to both attract and alienate viewers.

It’s raining, and in a static wide shot, a Japanese tourist (Kiyonobu Mitamura) gingerly pokes around the open-air theater lobby, eventually making his way into the theater. The ticket taker (Chen Shiang-chyi) walks down a long hallway with a noticeable limp. She reaches the ticket office, puttering around before roughly cutting a bun in two. These leisurely scenes are silent aside from the pattering of the rain and the echo of footsteps. None of the characters in the film are named, and there is no diegetic dialogue until around minute forty, so everything must be gathered from visual context. At this point, you might not assume that our Japanese tourist is Japanese or a tourist. Perhaps he is simply lost. It’s only as the film develops that an understanding can fall into place, and it can be frustrating to watch something that doesn’t have a clear meaning. Even after multiple viewings, I find myself filled with impatience. Is this shot over yet? It must be over now, right? Goodbye, Dragon Inn has an average shot length of 54.48 seconds.1 In 2010, the average shot length for English-language films was 2.5 seconds.2 Modern American audiences are not predisposed to observing such tedious scenes, yet with attention, there is definitely enough to chew on. Why is she cutting the bun in half? Who is the other half for? What could just be a small character detail, the ticket taker’s limp, becomes the entire story of that scene and many other scenes like it. Slow cinema represents what Gronstad describes as “the aestheticization of monotony.”3 The ticket taker’s job is arduous, and it is palpable only through a series of long takes that force the viewer to engage with the tedious.

After lingering on the theater’s exterior and its employees, the sanctity of the theater dissolves. Rather than being a temple, the theater is just another place people move through. Fu Ho is empty now, save for a few patrons. A couple of elderly men. A toddler sitting alone. A couple loudly eating snacks in the back. Rather than Dragon Inn on the screen being the subject as it was before, the film shifts its focus onto its patrons. They are doing little, yet somehow they command our attention. By being deprived of certain auditory stimulation, namely diegetic dialogue, visual senses are heightened, and I found myself scrutinizing every inch of the frame which is possible given how long each shot lingers. The peculiar thing about Goodbye, Dragon Inn, and other films like it is that their prolonged shots don’t just allow for extended consideration of the frame, but also extended consideration of the self. Not only do you develop a new mental process for ingesting visual information, but there is also a new awareness of that mental process given just how much time you are given to contemplate. Goodbye, Dragon Inn is a fabulous and meta theatergoing experience because it encourages you to consider the space you are in. As the camera scours the audience of the movie palace, I couldn’t help but find myself surveying the audience at the Lower East Side’s Metrograph.

Goodbye, Dragon Inn isn’t so much about what is happening, but how it is happening. Schrader writes of slow cinema in Transcendental Style, “Time becomes the story.”4 Through leisurely pacing, the visual reveal of small details becomes revelatory. The ticket taker walks around the theater with half a bun in her hand. She moves in and out of the static frame as she staggers up the stairs or walks through the decrepit corridors of the theater. Her movement through the theater provides the viewer with a greater sense of the space, but her objective remains largely unclear until she reaches the projection booth. It’s empty, but there is a cigarette smoldering in the ashtray. The ticket taker sits down dejected. Without an actor present, Tsai introduces a new character, the projectionist, as well as defines the relationship between the ticket taker and the projectionist as an affectionate one. Goodbye, Dragon Inn withholds information to make the audience work toward an understanding. It is not so esoteric as to have no narrative, but it isn’t going to be spoon-fed to you; rather patience and attention will eventually quench that burning desire for narrative closure. 

Still, if the style of Goodbye, Dragon Inn is at once compelling, it is also alienating, mirroring the film’s theme of thwarted desire. One plotline of the film (if you can call it that), follows the Japanese tourist as he cruises the theater. Despite the many empty seats, he paces the aisles and sits in the chairs directly next to male patrons. He edges closer to them but will not make physical contact, and the male patrons either ignore him or get up to move seats. There is an incredibly homoerotic three-minute scene where men just stand at urinals in the men’s bathroom. Two men exit a bathroom stall one after the other, and the men who stand at the urinals the whole time appear more interested in being in the company of men than going to the bathroom, but nothing is ever made overt. The length of a shot isn’t conducive to you understanding it. The camera’s fixed gaze is so impersonal. The men’s motivations remain unclear to the point that their loitering comes off as simply bizarre. Rather than the length of the shot bringing you in, it almost creates something impenetrable.

Even the inclusion of diegetic dialogue does not breed clarity. There isn’t a word of diegetic speech until forty minutes in. The Japanese tourist smokes in a shadowy back hallway of the theater with another patron played by Chen Chao-chung. In the first words of diegetic dialogue in the film, Chen says, “Do you know this theater is haunted?” He continues by asserting, “This theater is haunted. Ghosts.”5 His speech is brief but nevertheless endows the film with new meaning. Is Chen speaking literally or figuratively? How has all that we have seen confirmed or undermined the idea that the theater is haunted? The spoken dialogue would appear to advance the film’s limited plot and potentially relieve some of the viewer’s discomfort at watching a nearly silent film, but rather than spurring a dynamic discussion, in the world of the film, the dialogue is lost in translation. The tourist inches closer and closer, and his desire grows ever more palpable. Chen, disinterested in the tourist’s advances, walks slowly away from him. His footsteps are resounding in the quiet space. Just before Chen exits the frame, the tourist responds, “I am Japanese.” Another moment of missed connection. The scene is about four minutes, yet Chen’s expression is so muted that his character is indiscernible. Why is he in the bowels of the theater if not in search of a queer encounter? Why go into the haunted theater at all? Is he a ghost? The duration of the shot does not bring closeness but can rather emphasize the distance between the viewer and the characters. Each new piece of information only generates more questions.

While it can be useful to restrict discussion of slow cinema to time, it’s also worth considering Goodbye, Dragon Inn’s relationship to space. My favorite shot of the film is absolutely still. Dragon Inn, the film within the film, is over. The lights are up, and the patrons have departed. The ticket taker walks up the aisles and sweeps with a loud thump as she climbs each step. Then she exits, and for an exhilarating three minutes, everything is completely still. The crushed red velvet seats are motionless under the harsh fluorescent lights. We are forced to linger on the empty theater, and it’s in that time that the stakes of the entire film set in. The film can appear so minimalistic but is rather quite dynamic in contrast to the empty theater, the nothingness. What happens to a space when it’s no longer inhabited? It’s not made explicit until practically the last moment of the film through a small poster that Fu Ho is shutting down for good, yet the three-minute empty shot drives that point home harder than any literal marker ever could. Paradoxically, the total stillness of the shot rebukes the idea that in slow cinema nothing happens. The film’s enemy is nothingness. Time can only exist in relation to space. There is something beautiful and boring and horrifying in the stasis. The three minutes allow for plenty of contemplation about the visuals and the meaning of the film up until that point, but eventually, you’re likely to find your mind wandering off course entirely, and I think that is kind of the point too. We’ve grown unaccustomed to boredom. The “attention economy” has trained us to seek out stimulation to the point that we are simply dumbfounded when we are not being entertained. Slow cinema encourages contemplation, not just of the films but of ourselves. Slow cinema encourages the examination of what it is exactly that we expect from a film and how we respond when something flies in the face of that.

Goodbye, Dragon Inn appears to have all the makings of a sentimental film, but due to Tsai’s unique sensibilities, the film never becomes that. In meta-turn, Miao Tien and Shih Chun, the aging stars of Dragon Inn meet in the hallway. “No one comes to the movies, and no one remembers us anymore,” Chun says. Tien simply feels around his pockets for a cigarette, lights it, and takes a puff. Tsai seems at peace with his choices, not taking responsibility for the decline of cinema in society. He is purely an observer. The use of duration prevents the viewer from connecting to anything emotionally enough to provoke sentimentality. There is a sense of loss, but that loss expands beyond the loss of a movie theater, to the loss of human connection in a way that is honest rather than saccharine. The film ends with the ticket taker closing up the theater, leaving half of her bun in the ticket office. The projectionist (Lee Kang-sheng) finally appears on screen and is surprised and heartened to find the bun. He then makes his way onto his motorbike and rushes out into the rain. After his exit, the ticket taker then emerges from the shadows. Despite the opportunity, she did not approach him, and she likely will never have the opportunity to. As she limps through the rain with an umbrella, a feeling of melancholy washed over me. Goodbye, Dragon Inn. 

I’ve come to realize that writing this essay is a futile exercise. If slow cinema is “an attempted visualization of that which cannot be visualized, presence,” then what is the purpose of attempting to articulate what was perhaps never fully articulated in the first place?6 And yet, I still saw this essay through to the end. Partially out of a sense of responsibility to explore a genre cast off as inaccessible arthouse fare. There is a false assumption that if you are an enlightened viewer, slow cinema is riveting which I hope to demystify. Slow cinema is boring. That’s the point. However, I mostly sought to write this essay because the principles of slowness have a particular resonance to me. After years of struggling to declutter my mind, I have recently developed the ability to just sit and think, in a practice close to meditation. I just sit in my room and consider the sound of my fan or stand on the subway and notice what the people across from me are wearing. This ability has come in tandem with my interest in slow cinema, and I would describe watching slow cinema as something akin to a meditative state. The misconceptions about meditation are actually similar to those about slow cinema. Like watching slow cinema, meditation is not easy. Like slow cinema, meditation is difficult and often tedious. Yet, I still find it to be rewarding. Sometimes when you watch a movie, you are unaware you are watching it because you are so engrossed. Slow cinema is the opposite. There is a heightened awareness of yourself as a viewer. It makes room for introspection, to see what comes up for you when you are given a blank space. 

  1. Song Hwee Lim, “Stillness,” in Tsai Ming-Liang and a Cinema of Slowness (University of Hawai’i Press, 2014), 77–115.
  2. Greg Miller, “Data From a Century of Cinema Reveals How Movies Have Evolved,” Wired, last modified Sep 8, 2014, https://www.wired.com/2014/09/cinema-is-evolving/
  3. Asbjørn Grønstad, “Slow Cinema and the Ethics of Duration,” in Slow Cinema, ed. Tiago de Luca and Nuno Barradas Jorge, (Edinburgh University Press, 2016), 281. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctt1g09wrj.27.
  4. Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (University of California Press, 2018), 10.
  5. Goodbye, Dragon Inn, directed by Tsai Ming-liang (Homegreen Films, 2003), 00:44:48. https://metrograph.com/at-home-movie/?at_home_movie_id=606b3cfb48acb94e536a4f55
  6. Asbjørn Grønstad, “Slow Cinema and the Ethics of Duration,” in Slow Cinema, ed. Tiago de Luca and Nuno Barradas Jorge, (Edinburgh University Press, 2016), 279. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctt1g09wrj.27.
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