What Time Is It There?

What Time Is It There? ★★★★½

Film 23/30 - March Around the World 2020 - Taiwan

I’ve got a long-standing soft spot for Tsai Ming-liang’s films. I remember being struck by his breakthrough film Rebels of the Neon God when it came to the Sydney Film Festival aeons ago, and I fell in love with his follow up, Vive L’Amour, when I saw it in London two years later. I’ve tried to see his films whenever they’ve appeared at festivals ever since, but for some reason I never managed to see What Time is it There? until now. And having belatedly caught up with it, I’m happy to say it is one of his best. 

Hsiao Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng, the adorable lead in all of Tsai’s films), is in mourning following the death of his father. He and his mother live in a small apartment, and by day he sells watches on the streets of Taipei. A young woman, Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-Chyi) who is about to leave Taipei for Paris, approaches him looking for a watch with dual dials, so that she can simultaneously keep track of the time in France and Taiwan. She takes a fancy to Hsiao Kang’s personal watch and he reluctantly agrees to sell it to her. As a thank you, she gives him a cake. And this tiny act of kindness momentarily snaps him out of his boredom, his loneliness and his mourning, and he gazes in surprise and wonder after her as she walks away. 

This is the simple set up, which then circles through a series of increasingly amusing and poignant scenes involving Hsiao Kang’s obsession with the idea of Shiang-chyi’s life in Paris, and its refracted mirror in Shiang-chyi’s actual life in Paris. And while these two young people, completely apart, yet somehow joined and leading a bizarrely related life on opposite continents, fumble their way through their days, Hsiao Kang’s mother (Lu Yi-Ching), becomes increasingly obsessed with the spirit of her recently deceased husband. The result is a very enjoyable film about the serious business of loss and loneliness. 

The comedy is set in a grim reality, with pathos flickering at its edges. It is like a grubby urban fairy tale, slinking between grit and absurdism, becoming funnier and sadder the longer it runs. The sadness of the father’s/husband’s death hangs over the film. We watch Hsiao Kang’s mother go slightly nuts, and in Hsiao Kang’s idiosyncratic way, he goes slightly nuts too. Both become obsessive, Hsiao Kang attempts to change every clock he finds to Paris time. And his mother starts to talk to their aquarium fish in the belief that it has swallowed the soul of her husband who was reincarnated in the form of a cockroach, which Hsiao Kang dropped into the tank. 

Where the film gets quite wonderful is in the parallel storylines that form between Hsiao Kang and Shiang-chyi. He watches Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, and she wanders the streets, homeless like Jean-Pierre Leaud’s character. And later she meets the real Jean-Pierre Leaud in a graveyard, in a sweet cameo. Hsiao Kang gets drunk on French wine, and Shiang-chyi vomits in a toilet. Her isolation in a foreign country echos his increasing isolation in his own home, as his mum disconnects the power and papers over all the windows in the pursuit of her increasingly bizarre, superstitious beliefs. Hsiao Kang and Shiang-chyi’s tale becomes a love story in absentia - parallel lives connected by a wristwatch and by cosmic absurdity.

Tsai Ming-Liang films all this with a characteristic deadpan style. He holds long, static shots, and cuts between the characters’ lonely lives creating a rhythm struck to the beat of alternating background noises. It’s a hard effect to describe, but it is these noises that give the film its landscape, and variation, and I found the overall effect to be quite mesmerising. 

Sex is also important, with each character’s desire for physical affection a tension born from their loneliness. There’s a hilarious scene midway through the film where a man attracted by Hsiao Kang’s clock fetish, seeks to gain his attention by stealing one of his clocks. Later he emerges from a public toilet cubicle displaying it suggestively in front of his naked crotch, as if to say “do you like my clock?”.

The final scene ties the film together quite beautifully. Hsiao Kang’s father appears in Paris, and rescues Shiang-chyi’s stolen suitcase, that has been abandoned and left to float across a public pond. He then turns and walks towards a giant Ferris wheel, looming like a giant clock face ticking in reverse. It’s a beautiful way to round off an enigmatic, funny, and poignant film by one of modern cinema’s true auteurs. Tsai Ming-liang’s films may not be for everyone, but they’re definitely for me.

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