Had I done a double feature of Goodbye, Dragon Inn and Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets during normal times (whatever those are supposed to be) I likely would have picked up on the myriad ways they intersect thematically and emotionally. But watching them back-to-back during the tail end of 2020, almost a year into the global pandemic that has kept most of us, myself included, entirely out of movie theaters and bars, the experience proved nothing short of revelatory: a full-fledged communion between two profound works of art that gives catharsis to a sense of individual and collective loss.
Even though the films are separated by nearly two decades and two languages, the similarities are obvious straight away, with both revolving around the shuttering of long-standing (real-life) businesses. Originally released in 2003 and recently enjoying a new restoration, Tsai Ming-Liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (originally Bu San, which translated into English means “To Never Leave”) is set within the Fu-Ho, a classical movie palace in Taipei. The story unfolds during the theater’s very last screening, the honor of which goes to the 1967 wuxia classic, Dragon Inn. The labyrinthian space is haunted, perhaps literally, by a few solitary figures, including a dutiful, disabled ticket-taker and her projectionist co-worker; an awkward young man cruising for male attention; two aged stars of the titular film, one of whom has brought along his small grandson; and a handful of other phantom-like patrons.
Directed by Bill and Turner Ross, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, which debuted to much acclaim at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, situates itself at the bartop of The Roaring 20s, a decades-old dive on the outskirt of the Vegas strip that’s closing down a few days before the 2016 Presidential election. A motley crew of regulars—including an impoverished, out-of-work actor; a black Vietnam veteran; a rowdy, recently bereaved mother; a part-time rocker/small-time drug dealer and his Albert Einstein lookalike buddy; a few stray 20-somethings; and a couple of empathetic, but exhausted bartenders—gather together to give their home-away-from-home a proper, and properly shitfaced, send-off.
Stylistically, the films could hardly be more disparate: Goodbye, Dragon Inn features almost no dialog and non-diegetic sound, and is mostly made up of static tableaus. Composed in the transcendental style, it ranks among the greatest examples of ‘slow cinema’, alongside works from Andrei Tarkovsky, Chantal Akerman, Bela Tar and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Blood Nose, Empty Pockets, on the other hand, is a rollicking blast of cinema verité, what you might get if John Cassavetes decided to turn The Iceman Cometh into a faux documentary, but then chucked Eugene O’Neill’s script two scenes in. The former carries the mournful contemplation of the mausoleum, the latter comes on like an Irish wake.
And yet, for all their surface differences, the films come to a similar understanding of their respective subjects, one that gives reverence to their genius loci without falling over into rose-tinted nostalgia. A good amount of this comes by way of their clear-eyed depiction of labor: it’s easy to wax poetic about the gritty majesty of old school movie theaters and dive bars while ignoring the tedious, often pointless work that goes into sustaining them. (As someone who spent a short time working at a movie theater and a long time working in bars, I know from what I speak.)
I emphasize the word sustain, rather than preserve, since the latter conjures up a pristine quality that neither of the structures at the center of these films enjoys. In Goodbye, Dragon Inn, even as an opulent epic about the mythologized past plays on the screen-within-the-screen, the Fu-Ho has gone completely to seed—the seats are cracked, the floors are sticky, the aisles are littered with refuse, the roof is leaking. You can practically inhale the sharp odor of disinfectant and grime during the handful of scenes set in the restroom. Meanwhile, the bar at the center of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets may be called The Roaring 20s, but its dank environs are more reminiscent of the hard times that followed that decade (extra kudos to the film for recognizing Fireball as the modern-day equivalent to rotgut). Unless you’re a non-drinker or someone who only ties one on in high-end establishments or Applebee’s, it’s impossible to watch the film and not immediately be overcome by the narcotic funk that overhangs all such places—a mélange of spilt liquor, cigarette smoke, body odor, fried food, cleaning materials and piss.
Even though both places exist as spiritual—and in the case of the Fu-Ho, literal—shelters from the storm, their patrons don’t always respect them as such. In Goodbye, Dragon Inn, we cringe alongside one of the characters as he moves away from a couple of rude guests noisily munching on junk food, only to have another moviegoer plop their big bare feet onto the empty seat right next to his face. In Blood Nose, Empty Pockets the revelry sours with as the night grows longer, and those of us who’ve engaged in such epic drunks are reminded that for all they may contain hilarious hijinks and startling bursts of deep insight, they are apt to end with you toppling backwards after blacking out or being pushed out the door after trying to start a dumb fight for no good reason. Goodbye, Dragon Inn and Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets may focus on communal spaces, but ultimately, both are really about the intrinsic loneliness of life.
Not that that recognition makes us long to return to these places, and those like them, any less.
Watching either film now, the sense of loneliness becomes almost unbearable, since so many of the theaters and dives they remind us of, places where we could go to be lonely with other people, have permanently shut down as a result of the pandemic (and our leadership’s failed response to it), a travesty further compounded by our inability to take in one that one final showing, order that one last drink.
And yet, even as this reality makes these films all the more devastating, it also makes them all the more miraculous. We may not be able to return to our personal favorite haunts, but we can choose to return to those found in Goodbye, Dragon Inn and Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets over and again. In this way, we can actually choose to never leave.