The movies are heavy with ghosts and horrors. Right now, Sarah Michelle Gellar is sleuthing for the undead in ''The Grudge." In ''Saw," two men are being forced to hack themselves to bits. And there's a movie called ''The Manson Family" that gazes back with bloody fondness on the Manson family murders. But no ghost story, at the moment, is as haunting, exquisite, or bewitching as ''Goodbye, Dragon Inn," a nearly wordless, perfectly made moviegoing ballad that I'm proud to announce is gore-less, too. The whole thing is set, with uncommon rapture, in a rundown Tapei movie palace on the night of its final show.
The send-off is King Hu's 1966 swordplay epic ''Dragon Inn," which on the night we see it screened plays to a crowd whose density seems, mysteriously, to swell then shrink. The man behind ''Goodbye" is the Taiwan-based director Tsai Ming-Liang, who's one of the coolest things going in the movies (in Asia or anywhere else), and he's arranged the whole picture in the Fu-Ho theater, a vast, leaky behemoth that's part dungeon, part Dickensian mansion, part armory, and, as far as I'm concerned, completely alive.
The film waltzes between activity among the patrons in the main auditorium, and its corridors, stairwells, and caverns, which are crossed, climbed, and stalked by the woman (Chen Shiang-chyi) who takes the tickets, flushes the toilets, and has a general run of the place. She also has a limp, and Tsai's preference for static, wait-and-see camerawork is brilliantly deployed to watch her make her way down a hall or up steps.
Watching her move in such protracted intervals, you realize she's much younger than her dowdy disposition makes you think she is. (Anybody who's seen Tsai's ''What Time Is It There?" knows Chen is a minx.) You also realize the limp is a thing of beauty. The camera loves her body's fluid stride and the way it transforms an ordinary long shot into something that steals your breath and breaks your heart.
Inside the auditorium, a straggler (Kiyonobu Mitamura) arrives, and so does the movie's comedy. We're meant to think this guy is a serious cinephile, which on any other day he might be. Tonight he's looking for sex, wandering from chair to chair, and eventually finding himself doing something absurd and kinky-looking to a distinguished gentleman, who happens to be the screen legend and star of ''Dragon Inn," Shih Chun, a man so transfixed with wistfulness by the memories unfolding in front of him that he can't be bothered to look over at the weirdo writhing on his left.
The search for a hookup proves ideal for Tsai's long takes and his penchant for the comedy of proximity and the longing for it. When the camera is placed in a far corner of the men's room while the straggler relieves himself (or pretends to), other men enter and skip the dozen or so available and faraway urinals to stand right next to him for epic cruising. After a few minutes of this, one guy reenters, walks right up to the same spot and reaches for the pack of smokes he left on the ledge.
Tsai, who's in his late 40s and has written all his features with Yang Pi-Ying, has always been a clever director, tapping into loneliness and yearning with increasingly acute intelligence and emotional reach. ''Vive L'Amour" (1994), ''The River" (1997), and ''The Hole," his most gimmicky picture, were terrific and complex, each one more formally adventurous than the next. By the time of ''What Time Is It There?" (released in America in 2002), a cosmic-existential dramatic comedy loosely about loving long distance, he'd become one of the most exciting directors in the world. ''Goodbye, Dragon Inn" elevates him to one of the finest, taking the best of Yasujiro Ozu, Wim Wenders, and Andrei Tarkovsky, and pumping in some of Jacques Tati and Francois Truffaut.
This is one of the most gorgeous and maturely composed movies you'll see this year. I've rarely held my breath in anticipation of a director's next shot, each being a small movie unto itself. Working with the cinematographer Liao Ben-bong, Tsai finds a dozen amazing ways to experience a movie, like the scene where we find our intrepid ticket-taker watching ''Dragon Inn" so close that its projected image pours through the perforations in the screen and dots her face. There are so many textures that are exposed in a mere decision about how near to or far from a person to place a camera. You're reminded, in a way that only a great movie can, that such decisions produce an inexplicable magic, and that Tsai Ming-Liang, in addition to being a sterling director, is a superior magician.
One last thing. ''Goodbye, Dragon Inn" reveals itself to be the sort of missed-connection love story that's becoming a Tsai exclusive. But ''Goodbye, Dragon Inn" is a valentine not simply to old movies but to the borderline-extinct, one-screen relics that devotedly play them. Tsai seems to have built his movie for serendipitous enchantment: Try watching it at the Brattle Theater without being floored by the director's generosity. There's a seat at his last picture show waiting for you.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.