What Time Is It There? (2001)

Dir. by Tsai Ming-Liang

Images: This is a beautiful film. Tsai and cinematographer Benoît Delhomme combine warmly saturated interiors with cold, stark, exteriors (particularly in the Paris scenes). The film is composed almost entirely of static, medium shots, each typically lasting more than a minute. Favorite images: Hsiao Kang drying his hands in a movie theater lobby, the mother sharing her misery with a fish, and the beautiful close-up of Chen Shiang-chyi in the final moments. Actually, the entire final sequence is one of the most stunning I’ve ever seen (so stunning, in fact, that I decided to not spoil it with a screen capture).

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Charles Taylor opens his fine review of What Time is It There? with the question, “How do you praise the films of Tsai Ming-Liang without making people dread the prospect of going to see them?” The temptation when writing about a film such as this is to lose oneself in an intellectual dissection of its most explicit and admittedly somber concerns: alienation, sorrow, mourning, loss. Hardly the stuff of a Saturday matinee. Tsai has certainly invited such thoughtful analysis throughout his career — I even took him up on the offer after watching Vive L’Amour — but doing so with What Time is It There?, which I’ve now watched on each of the last three days, seems almost dishonest. I’m reluctant to reduce this film to just another Antonioni-like lament (though those echoes surely remain) because doing so would require that I neglect the joy and humor of the film and would force me to too casually equate sadness with irreparable decay, loneliness with nihilism. The film, I think, carefully avoids this trap, so I’ll try to do the same.

Tsai’s favorite everyman, Lee Kang-sheng, returns as Hsiao Kang, a Taipei watch vendor mourning the sudden death of his father. In an early scene, Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi), a beautiful young woman preparing for a trip to Paris, convinces Hsiao Kang to sell his own watch to her. Their brief encounter inspires in him a sense of longing, which he acts upon by systematically resetting clocks to Paris time and by watching, again and again, Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. While Hsiao Kang pines away in Taiwan, Shiang-chyi wanders through Parisian cafes and Metro stations, adrift in the rituals of loneliness: listening silently to the late-night sounds of an upstairs neighbor, longing for contact with random strangers. To this strange pairing, Tsai adds Hsiao Kang’s mother (Lu Yi-ching), a woman paralyzed by grief who also seems to find relief only through ritual, both religious and domestic. The images of her preparing her dead husband’s meals are complex and contradictory, beautiful and devastating.

And it is precisely that tension between beauty and sorrow, a hallmark of great drama at least ever since Aristotle defined “catharsis,” that I would offer in response to Taylor’s opening question. Implicit in Tsai’s critique of an increasingly disjointed, impersonal modern world — and, really, hasn’t this position lost some of its novelty over the last century and a half? — there exists ample evidence of the possibility of honest human communion. What Time is It There?, more than any of the other Tsai films I’ve seen, takes delight in that possibility, marking avenues of escape from alienation by way of the film’s style if not necessarily by its content.

The mother is as good a starting point as any. In one of the film’s most touching scenes, she dresses formally for a private dinner, accompanied only by her husband’s empty chair at the table. Like Hitchcock’s “Miss Lonelyhearts,” she raises a toast to her imagined companion before breaking into tears. It’s a trademark Tsai moment: his camera remains static throughout the long take, framing his subject in a medium long shot; the actress works alone in silence, her movements measured and deliberate. The tendency of most critics, myself included, has been to reduce these signature scenes to meditations on Modernist dismay, but doing so too easily dismisses the honor and wonder of mourning. Hsiao Kang’s mother is not a desperate individual adrift in an irrational, alienating world (or some such cliché); instead, she is like the rest of us, one who has obviously known love and companionship and now, suddenly, must make sense of loss. Tsai’s style, which is often rightfully compared to the silent cinema, frees us to experience the full brunt of attendant emotions: agony, nostalgia, despair, desire, hope.

The wonderful paradox at the heart of this film is that, while exposing the dehumanizing conditions of contemporary life, it simultaneously celebrates the breadth and value of all emotional experience. Shiang-chyi, for instance, certainly suffers profound loneliness and longing in Paris, but those perfectly legitimate feelings are accompanied also by a joyful freedom and curiosity. The first time I watched What Times is It There? I was confused by an enigmatic scene in which she climbs a flight of stairs to investigate her noisy neighbors and becomes distracted by a hallway window. By the third viewing, I was anticipating the moment because it so perfectly characterizes her recognizably conflicted nature. She desires contact with others, of course, but she is also surprisingly content to explore the world on her own. Hsiao Kang is likewise a young man like so many of us, marked at times by deep despair — the image of him crying in his sleep rings more true to me than any other in the film — and at others by absurd humor. As I recall, I also didn’t laugh out loud until that third viewing, when the frequent critical comparisons of Tsai and Buster Keaton began to finally make sense. All three characters in What Time is It There? represent Tarkovsky’s ideal — those who are “outwardly static, but inwardly charged with energy by an overriding passion” — and that passion alone is reason enough to watch.