What Time Is It There? (2001)

by Lucas Hilderbrand

10 January 2002


Another Time, Another Place

Recent Taiwanese films screened in the U.S.—Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai, Edward Yang’s Yi Yi , and all of Tsai Ming-Liang’s work—have constituted, if not exactly a movement, then at least a recurring trend. Although each director has a distinctive style, themes of urban solitude and dissonant relationships recur. Minus any sort of manipulative tear-jerking or bemoaning of brand-name existence, the films create a more elusive, quieter impact than Hollywood’s family dramas and tales of urban malaise.

Tsai goes another step, infusing his movies with evocatively contemporary moods: paranoia, desperation, and absurdity. As in his previous works, such as Vive L’amour and The Hole, the characters in What Time Is It There? rarely speak with one another, except in bursts of argument. The people who inhabit Tsai’s films, and his vision of contemporary Taipei, simply do not know how to communicate.

cover art

What Time Is It There? (ni Nei Pien Chi Tien)

Director: Tsai Ming-Liang
Cast: Lee Kang-Sheng, Chen Shiang-Chyi, Lu Yi-Ching

(Winstar Cinema)
US theatrical: 11 Jan 2002

As What Time Is It There? begins, Hsiao Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng) has just lost his father (Miao Tien), and his mother (Lu Yi-Ching) insists on various ceremonies to ensure his return. Mother devotes more attention to the father’s spirit—furnishing him with fresh meals and burning incense on his behalf—than to Kang, who spends his days miserably selling watches on the street. One day, he meets a demanding customer, Shiang-Chyi (Chen Shiang-Chyi), who does not want any of the watches for sale, but instead wants Kang’s own watch, urgently—before she departs for Paris the next day. After a round of refusals and negotiations, Kang consents.

At this point, he develops a new preoccupation: Paris provides an intriguing fantasy escape from his morbid home life. He resets all of his watches to Parisian time and then endeavors to change the times of all the clocks he finds throughout the city. His mother interprets the out-of-sync time on their reset home clock as her deceased husband’s time; she begins preparing meals for midnight, on his schedule, and eliminating all light sources to create a suitably dark environment for his return.

On the other side of the world, Shiang-Chyi finds the same urban isolation as Hsiao Kang, just in another time zone and in another language. She is all-too-visible as an outsider, a lone Asian woman surrounded by crowds of white Europeans. In the Metro, a Chinese man standing on the opposite platform stares at her as if she is an apparition. Unable to speak or read French, she usually communicates in English during the rare instances she has a friendly encounter—as in a delightful scene when she meets Jean-Pierre Leaud (as himself) in a cemetery. (To extend the intertextual joke, Kang purchases and watches a pirate copy of The 400 Blows in order to learn about Paris.) She finally meets a kindly woman from Hong Kong, who is also staying in Paris, indefinitely, as a tourist and forms the only friendship apparent in the film—until it, too, dissolves.

Similar to Tsai’s earlier films, the style is dominated by static, long takes from distant, observational points of view. The characters spend most of their time in confining interiors, moving about in awkward silence and a somnambulistic state of contemplation or depression. Again, he is preoccupied with dysfunction and bodily functions—Kang awakes each night to urinate in any available receptacle, Shiang-Chyi vomits from drinking too many espressos. These moments of ugly physical “reality” seem to be responses to artificial urban life.

What Time also presents what may be Tsai’s most pronounced rendering of the impossibility of sexual intimacy and connection. Sex acts in the film, consummated or not, all fall within the category of the deviant, from public toilet flirtation and masturbation to backseat whoring and homosexual exploration. A three-way, crosscut sequence showing Kang, his mother, and Shiang-Chyi’s various attempts at sexual stimulation, suggests simultaneously their melancholy desperation and erotic smoldering. That none of these three scenes consummate a narrative of love or conclude with tenderness is telling. For Tsai, sex seems no more sensual or personal than any other act in the urban landscape. This sequence stands out not only because it is the most quickly edited montage—in contrast to the film’s nearly exclusive format of long takes—but also because it is the one in which the most happens. The film is quite purposely a bit dull.

Although What Time offers Tsai’s usual style and themes, it has a more colorful, more playful tone than his other films (except for The Hole‘s surreal musical sequences). It’s here that, while the characters’ motivations remain ambiguous or even opaque, What Time Is It There? offers a lingering hopefulness.

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