Ming-liang Tsai is one of the two directors (the other one being Hsiao-hsien Hou) who introduced me to Taiwanese cinema. It's been a while since I watched his films, but back in the day I considered Bu San (Goodbye, Dragon Inn) to be his best work. I looked forward to watching it again and even though it didn't hold up quite as well as I expected, Bu San is still a small gem that deserves some extra attention.
Bu San has always felt like a mid-career finale for Tsai. A film he built up to from the first film he directed, like a craftsman honing his skill with each new product he makes. The combination of absurd, almost impossible comedy and stilted, long-winding scenes really reached a high here. After Bu San Tsai would start to play around and adjust his style, resulting in films like Tian Bian Yi Dyo Yun, I Don't Want To Sleep Alone and Face, taking his trademark elements into a different direction.
If you're looking for a plot or a story to hold on to, Bu San isn't the film for you. There are some threads that run through the film, but nothing coherent or conclusive. At most you can say it's a film about the declining interest in old-fashioned movie theaters. Not just about the people visiting but also about the people working there. Bu San delivers an impression, a final peek into the world hidden behind the doors of small movie theaters. It's not much, but sometimes that's all it takes for a good film.
There's one plot line following a Japanese tourist who ventures into the theater to hide from the rain. Tsai uses him to illustrate a couple of common movie theater experiences and irritations. People sitting too close when there's plenty of room, chips crunching, people moving around, feet appearing on the seat next to you ... if you've visited a theater yourself I'm sure you can relate. The other thread follows a cripple concierge who wanders through the building, selling tickets, checking up on the projectionist and eating a bite. The things you do when running a beat-down theater like this.
Bu San can be a little dark at times, but apart from that it's one of Tsai's most visually impressive films. The camera is either completely static or moves around slowly yet deliberately, but the lighting and framing are exquisite, which makes for some perfect shots. It's far from the colorful world of Tian Bian Yi Dyo Yun and the editing seems completely dormant at times (I'm sure the empty theater scene is going to put off a lot of people), but Tsai's eye for angles and composition is simply astounding.
As for the soundtrack, there's not much to tell really. The films is void of music, there's hardly even any dialogue. What you get is background sounds (the grating sounds of chips) and the sound of the film playing in the theater. It does heighten the desolate atmosphere of the place and even though the soundtrack itself is pretty much non-existent Tsai makes good use of ambient sounds and times them well to either make a point or add to the overall atmosphere of the film.
With only three actors and a few extras Tsai manages to get through the entire film. Kiyonobu Mitamura's character is a little awkward at first but Mitamura has great comedic timing, Shiang-chyi Chen and long time Tsai regular Kang-sheng Lee are clearly more at ease doing very little for long stretches of time. With so little to do it's hard to really judge the individual performances apart from how at ease the actors are in front of the camera, but they suit the film and make the most of what they are given.
Watching these older Tsai film, I'm always amazed at the subtlety of the comedy Tsai applies, to the point where I'm not even sure if certain things were actually intended to be funny. Bu San contains some obvious moment, like the peanut woman and the toilet scene, but there are also some tougher calls. The best joke of the film is the cripple concierge (who gives Tsai a perfect alibi to slow down Bu San even more than usually the case - she just walks very slow), but to this day I'm still not certain if it was done intentionally or if I just see too much in it.
Bu San is some pretty hardcore arthouse fare. The pacing is incredibly slow, the deadpan comedy will pass many people by and the little plot there is serves little purpose beyond fleshing out the overarching theme just a tiny bit. Still the film puts you in a pleasant trance. It allows you to slow down along with it, transporting you to a wet and distant place where you can enjoy the final day of a local movie theater. The film lost a little of its charm over the years and it can be bit too slow at times, but it's still a testament of Tsai's incredible skill and unique voice.