Since his debut with 1992's Rebels of the Neon God, which made the rounds of U.S. festivals the following year, Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang has continued to make movies that offer variations on themes of isolation and human loneliness. This is not nearly as dreary as it may sound; indeed, his latest, the French co-production What Time Is It There?, moves at Tsai's usual deliberate pace without ever growing dull. Like all of his previous features, Tsai's new film stars Lee Kang-Sheng, who has become the filmmaker's stand-in, much as Jean-Pierre Léaud--who also appears in What Time Is It There?, both as he is today and as he was 40 years ago in The 400 Blows--was François Truffaut's onscreen alter ego.
Lee plays Hsiao Kang, a twentysomething who still lives with his parents and makes some kind of living on the street selling watches out of a suitcase. (Actually, except in 1997's The Hole, where his character went nameless, Lee always plays characters named Hsiao Kang in Tsai's films.) A few days after the death and cremation of Hsiao Kang's father (Tien Miao, veteran of King Hu's '60s kung-fu classics), the grieving Hisao Kang is approached by Shiang-Chyi (Chen Shiang-Chyi), a pretty young woman looking for a watch. Unfortunately, although there are dozens of watches in Hsiao Kang's case, she is only interested in the one he is wearing, which was given to him by his father.
He explains it would be bad luck to sell it so soon after his father's death and that he'll try to find another like it for her, but she's leaving for a Paris vacation in two days. Her persistence wears him down; despite being quoted an exorbitant price, she buys it for her trip.
What Time Is It There?
For the first third, the film focuses on Hsiao Kang, as his grief is exacerbated by his mother's nuttiness. She wanders the apartment at night, praying and lighting incense and proclaiming weirder and weirder rules about how best to encourage the return of his father's spirit. Hsiao Kang so wants to avoid her that he pees in a bottle rather than risk the walk to the bathroom. His thoughts also begin to turn to Shiang-Chyi, whom he wishes he had gotten to see more before she left. He calls Paris information and utters the titular question; discovering Paris is seven hours earlier than Taiwan, he begins sneaking around the city, surreptitiously turning back clocks, as though this will somehow bring him closer to the girl he longs for.
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Meanwhile, Tsai begins giving Shiang-Chyi equal time, intercutting her exploits in France--including a strange meeting with Léaud--with Hsiao Kang's in Taiwan. Miserably isolated by language and an apparent lack of purpose in Paris, she also becomes obsessed with trying to make a phone call, presumably to Hsiao Kang. Yet their hope of establishing some sort of connection seems to be continually frustrated.
In his earlier films, Tsai has dwelled on the irony of the loneliness of crowds. His most accessible film--1994's Vive L'Amour, about three relative strangers, with three keys, dodging and feinting within a supposedly unoccupied apartment--was like an art-film remake of the classic comedy The More the Merrier, alternating in tone between Bergmanesque angst and screwball antics. Unlike Rebels of the Neon God, it carefully balanced sadness with comical absurdity. (And still it ended with a protracted tracking shot of the heroine crying as she strode through a park.) The Hole added greater physical distance: The protagonists were in vertically adjacent apartments, connected by a hole in the floor/ceiling.
This time, he has separated his characters by several thousand miles, yet suggests an almost supernatural or spiritual bond that gives the surprising ending a powerful jolt of relative uplift. And what formerly seemed a concern with the overwhelming sadness and isolation of contemporary Taiwanese life, specifically, now feels like a general view of urban life. It's apparent Tsai has an affinity for the style of silent films. It's doubtful that the dialogue in any of his films totals more than 20 or 30 pages. (The Hole would be more like five.) There are little flashes of Keaton and Langdon and, more recently, Tati in his deliberate, deadpan staging of physical action.
To say he's a comic poet of isolation may sound pretentious, but it's as good a characterization as any. And invocations of other filmmakers don't really give an accurate fix on his particular style. In his lack of interest in "story," he is a little reminiscent of Wong Kar-wai, but his visual style and narrative devices are, by design, much plainer and matter-of-fact. He is unlikely to be everyone's cup of tea, but those with an interest in new or singular sorts of film experiences will find What Time Is It There? well worth the time.