What Time Is It There?, Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang's most recent feature, continues to explore isolation, the break-down of the family unit, and the longing for genuine human contact. His characters often perform mundane tasks, not always directly recognizable to the viewer, and resume their daily lives without speaking. Using minimal cuts, the camera lingers as we wait for things to unfold and usually it's never what we would expect. He forces us to decipher their actions for ourselves, taking in every painful, funny, or pathetic scene.
Purveyors and fans of cinema would easily find similarities between Tsai Ming-Liangs work and the French New Wave- particularly Truffaut and Bresson. In an interview published in Skrien, no.2 March 2002, he says:
"The European films of the Nouvelle Vague or the New German Cinema films were indeed very different. And they moved me enormously. I was moved just as much by the films of my childhood. But I think European films are closer to me because they are about modern life and ordinary, modern men. And I have the idea they are more realistic, true to life."
If you're looking for a straight forward narrative with substantial amounts of dialogue, this film will not deliver either.
What Time Is It There? falls way beyond anything in mainstream Hollywood. I admit I waited so long to see this film because I was dreading it. His previous films,The River, Vive L'mour, and The Hole ( the most cheery of the bunch ) all contain themes that aren't necessarily "fun" to watch.
Lee Kang-Sheng, who plays Hsiao Kang (his nickname in real life) and stars in all of his films, is a street corner watch vendor whose father just died. There he meets a woman ( Chen Shiang-Chyi) who wants to buy a dual-time watch before she heads off to Paris. Not satisfied with his selection, she eyes the watch on his wrist and asks him to sell it to her. Hsiao Kang declines saying it is bad luck to wear his watch since his father recently died. After hassling him a few more times he gives in and sells her the watch. She swiftly walks away after the transaction. A moment later she comes back and quickly hands him a present, a cake. This unexpected gesture from a stranger leads to Hsiao Kang's obsession with the young woman- he starts methodically setting all the clocks he comes in contact with seven hours ahead to Paris time. Meanwhile, Hsiao Kang's mother ( Lu Yi-Ching ) performs Buddhist rituals hoping that her husband will come back, hoping he will be reincarnated in some form. In Paris, the young woman wanders through the street seemingly still in Taipei time. She is living in a silent world trying to make contact with strangers in an unfamiliar place only to encounter awkwardness and loneliness. There are also humorous episodes that poke fun at the daily rituals people perform to comfort themselves when faced with adversity- particularly Lu Yi-Ching setting the table for her dead husband and serving him midnight suppers, Hsiao Kang in at the hight of his obsession leaning over a railing on top of a Taipei buiding with a pair of long metal grabbers changing the clock face above a street. From a purely surface value, this plot may seem simplistic and cliche. Since the passing of italian realist and French New Wave moments, the themes in these films have become common-place in todays cinematic world. To say his films are comparable to films of past cinematic movements is accurate but incomplete. Tsai Ming-Liang's vision and thematic experience convey much more that cannot be described with words. Watch What Time Is It There? more than once.