Existential slapstick? Epistemological comedy? Buddhist farce? Whatever it is, Tsai Ming-liang’s witty, wistful new film, What Time Is It There?, is a temporal inquiry that shoulders its philosophical burden lightly.
One of the critical hits of the last New York Film Festival, What Time Is It There? is Tsai’s most expansive feature to date. The poet laureate of Taipei alienation here integrates Paris into his particular planet—a ghost world populated by familiar presences. Just as in Tsai’s four previous features, the director’s alter ego, Lee Kang-sheng, plays an impassive, somewhat pained character named Hsiao-kang. Tsai further reprises the family constellation seen in The River, with Miao Tien and Lu Yi-ching appearing as Hsiao-kang’s father and mother, and reunites his star with Chen Shiang-chyi, his girlish partner in one of The River‘s memorably disconnected love scenes.
A comic minimalist who wrings maximum emotional impact from his fastidiously composed action and acute sense of timing, Tsai opens up with a long stare at Hsiao-kang’s life-battered father pulling on his cigarette, puttering around the frame, and then stolidly sitting down to eat his solitary meal. The viewer deduces that this middle-aged stoic has died when Tsai cuts to the expressionless Hsiao-kang in a car en route to the mausoleum. As in The River, Lee is more a presence than a performer—”in front of the camera Hsiao-kang is not required to perform,” Tsai has explained. (To add to the documentary flavor, much of What Time Is It There? was shot, like Rebels of the Neon God and The River, in the actor’s apartment.)
A watch vendor whose base of operations is an esplanade above downtown Taipei, Hsiao-kang is the straight man for whatever interactions come his way. He connects briefly with Shiang-chyi (Chen), who insists on buying his personal dual-time watch before she leaves for Paris. Hsiao-kang’s halfhearted attempt to dissuade her—since he is in mourning, the timepiece will bring bad karma—has no effect. Shiang-chyi’s desire for that specific watch is no more rational than the superstitious delusions pushing Hsiao-kang’s grief-stricken mother to the edge of sanity. When a cockroach scuttles through the family kitchen, she becomes hysterically protective: “Don’t kill it—it could be your father’s reincarnation.” Hsiao-kang’s feeding the insect to the family’s pet carp only ups the ante. Tracking the transmigration of souls, she crouches beside the tank, plaintively asking the fish if it is indeed her husband, swimming back to see her.
What Time Is It There? is filled with purposeful, if absurd, activity rendered gravely hilarious through Tsai’s deadpan, distanced representation of extreme behavior. Forbidden by his mother to use the toilet for fear of startling his father’s soul, Hsiao-kang is compelled to urinate into a plastic bag. Activities have an almost Warholian lack of affect. Hsiao-kang squats by his stand idly trying to smash the crystal of an unbreakable watch by swatting it against the metal guard rail. Everyone is either attempting to turn back the hands of time or else put their arms around a memory. As Hsiao-kang, apparently obsessed by his meeting with Shiang-chyi, takes to compulsively resetting clocks of all sorts to Paris time, so his mother dutifully gets up in the middle of the night to cook dinner on what she imagines is her dead husband’s new phantom zone schedule.
As the non-French-speaking Shiang-chyi sits alone in a Paris café, Hsiao-kang consoles himself with a rented video of The 400 Blows, a movie Tsai has called his favorite. The scene shown is a doubly haunting one of the child Jean-Pierre Léaud furtively stealing a bottle of milk from outside a Paris door and hungrily gulping it down—enacting neediness with an immediacy that neither Hsiao-kang nor Shiang-chyi can muster. Even more alienated than Hsiao-kang’s Taipei, her tourist Paris sometimes seems to be a figment of Taipei’s imagination. At one point, she seeks refuge in a cemetery and encounters Léaud as a disheveled eccentric.
This evocation of inconsolable solitude and geographical dislocation has affinities to the melancholy globalism mapped out by the melodramas of European directors like Wim Wenders and Krzysztof Kieslowski. But Tsai is far more restrained in his filmmaking. His visual language is austerely economical. The interior lighting favored by cinematographer Benoît Delhomme generally emanates from a single source in a cramped space. Even the fades arise out of the action—Tsai cuts to black and a door opens. Given the absence of dialogue and the emphasis on expressive framing, Tsai would have made an outstanding silent filmmaker—as he himself suggests with an unexpected homage to Harold Lloyd.
Anachronism is the subject of the movie. Cutting back and forth between Paris and Taipei, What Time Is It There? proposes physical separation as a factor of time, rather than space, even as it appears to wonder just what “time” means. (Does the title refer to the movie’s self-contained world?) Tsai’s scenes are generally presented, without segmentation, as extended temporal chunks. Close-ups are used sparingly. As in the mature films of Yasujiro Ozu, the camera never moves unless it’s hitching a ride in some vehicle.
Tsai’s formalism fits his mordant view of human nature. A night of attempted contact—involving Shiang-chyi, Hsiao-kang, and his bereaved mother, in concert with assorted human and object partners—likely leaves everyone lonelier than they were before. But then, as a prelude to the movie’s mysterious, poetic ending, Shiang-chyi inadvertently surrenders her baggage. The final scene, perfectly framing the action and presided over by a karmic Ferris wheel, represents a curious move from limbo to paradise.
Perhaps Buddhist, perhaps Christian, this mystical closer suggests that Tsai’s characters have really been wandering between the worlds. That is, pace Gertrude Stein, they’ve been wandering here and there as if there really is a there there.