From Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), dir. Tsai Ming-Liang (all images courtesy Metrograph Pictures)

The drip never stops in the atmospheric movies of Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang. Rain is an essential acoustic rhythmic accompaniment, measuring the passage of time. It’s not just that moisture adds extra sheen — unlike some of his contemporaries, like Wong Kar-wai, Tsai avoids obvious photo-op effects. Instead, wetness serves as a metaphor. It points to the porousness of spaces and bodies; an existential permeability tied to desire. In 2003’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn, which is returning now with a 4K digital restoration, a few scattered strangers sit in a decaying cinema palace during its last screening: King Hu’s 1967 martial arts epic Dragon Inn. The film moves two older audience members, for reasons that become clear only at the end. As far as the rest of the patrons are concerned, it’s a noisy backdrop, and Tsai’s camera remains pointed at them and not the screen. Most of the film’s characters, particularly its lovesick queer men, seek more immediately gratifying pleasures in the theater’s bathroom stalls and damp tenebrous hallways.

For those familiar with the restraint of Tsai’s Stray Dogs (2013) or his latest, Days (2019), Goodbye, Dragon Inn may come as a surprise. It insouciantly proclaims itself void of plot, and yet it isn’t nearly as “slow” or humorless as that descriptor may suggest. The audience members munch on their favorite snacks, sprawl in their seats, and stick their bare feet in each other’s faces. You’d never think a spacious, mostly empty movie theater could feel so tight. Tsai satirizes the moviegoing experience as an auditory assault and an encroachment on one’s personal space. He flips the notion of moviegoing as a sanctified experience. After all, for young lovers, the theater is a means and not the end.

Goodbye, Dragon Inn is also wistfully subversive in its use of its actors. Tsai’s longtime collaborator, the star Lee Kang-sheng, plays a dashing projectionist, but he’s missing from his booth and barely seen. He appears in two shadowy scenes, first fraternizing with an amorous youth (Yi Cheng Lee) in a cluttered backstage area, then later spooling film. These fleeting moments are magnetic, as if the stylized artificiality of the wuxia classic (which, like the rain, permeates the theater) has transformed ordinary gestures. Life itself is cinematic, but only because cinema makes it so.

From Goodbye, Dragon Inn

Then there’s Chen Shiang-chyi as the leg-brace-wearing ticket taker. Her steady, valiant progress over the course of the film — limping up and down hallways and a spiral staircase, trying to find the projectionist — is inexplicably hypnotic. Where the projectionist embodies sensuality and suppressed desire, her position makes her a side accessory to others’ pursuits. In one scene, she cleans the toilets where we previously saw men check each other out. In another, she leaves the frame while the camera casually stays in place. But Tsai’s unsentimental tragicomedy about misdirected desire isn’t cruel. When all the viewers are gone and the building’s shutters are drawn, as the ticket taker goes out into the street, the scene is unabashedly cinematic. As she huddles under her red umbrella, prosaically carrying a plastic bag, the camera is now all hers. For an instant, she too is a movie star.

The restoration of Goodbye, Dragon Inn is available to stream December 18-24 via Metrograph.

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo. She writes on art, film and literature, often in the context of social issues and politics.