What Time Is It There? (2001)

Lucas Hilderbrand

'What Time Is It There?' presents what may be Tsai's most pronounced rendering of the impossibility of sexual intimacy and connection.

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

Director: Tsai Ming-Liang
Cast: Lee Kang-Sheng, Chen Shiang-Chyi, Lu Yi-Ching
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Winstar Cinema
First date: 2001
US Release Date: 2002-01-11

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.

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.