What Time Is It There?

What Time Is It There? ★★★★½

I haven't been too active recently; hope you're all doing well. With everything happening (see my last review) right now it's been hard to focus on art without feeling like I'm wasting my time a bit. But for now, I've done my best to do what I can to help, I'm also waiting on several books to arrive from black-owned bookstores to help me learn more, and I'm going to have to return a little to other things I enjoy or I'm going to drive myself crazy. Never forget though, now and forever, black lives matter.


So when I need something that will really speak to me the way the best art does, I turn to Tsai Ming-Liang, this being one of his few films I hadn't already seen. If I didn't know better, I would've assumed it came a little earlier in his career -- it feels so much more like a Vive L'Amour with its simple human drama than its actual predecessor, The Hole. In that film, Ming-Liang was already experimenting with inserting surreal musical numbers and pushing his slow style to its limits (the latter he would really commit to in the next movie, Goodbye, Dragon Inn). In a way this movie is a brief return to the past, but it holds its own identity, too. The images feel unlike most other work in his filmography. While there are moments of the usual natural, dingy shots, there is a lot more unnatural and moody lighting. There's more warmth in the visuals than I normally expect. It feels like he's aware and playing with this evolution in his work, too. The film opens with Miao Tien, the usual father figure, in the same sort of shot at the same table that we've seen countless times in past movies. "This sure is a Tsai Ming-Liang movie" I jokingly thought to myself as I recognized the table, the room, hell, the very camera angle. Then this character dies and we rarely see that angle again. Sure, much of the film takes place in that same room, but it's shot from new angles in such different lighting that it scarcely feels like the same place. The familiar has become alien. Whether intended or not, it's like the death of elements of Tsai's original style. The Rebels of the Neon God are no more.

For being so subtle and abstract, this movie is remarkably dense with ways to interpret it. From here, I just want to focus on a few ways that I found it so connected to my own life. The major plot focuses on Hsiao-kang, a watch salesman, briefly meeting a woman before she travels to Paris, selling her his own watch, and then the two going about their lives alone and lonely, with Hsiao-kang beginning to change all of the clocks to match the time in Paris. While a little exaggerated and silly, there's something deeply human about the ways people here try to feel together while they're nowhere near. I actually spent several years of my life in a long distance relationship that crossed national borders. We've lived together for a few years at this point, and while permanent immigration is still an obstacle we have to get past in the future, overall things are really good right now. But that disconnected feeling of trying to feel closer to someone you cannot possibly be anywhere near is very real. I can't say I was out on rooftops dangling pseudo-tools to change enormous outdoor clocks, but I know what it feels like to want to do something on that scale for the smallest amount of emotionally closing an impossible distance. This movie gets that.

I want to stop soon having mostly just discussed what about this movie I deeply, personally related to, and luckily I haven't had to deal with serious grief just yet. Yet I can't write this without at least mentioning that alongside all of this is a parallel story about Lu Yi-Ching's mother character experiencing the same distance, only hers is due to the death of her husband. She throws herself headfirst into any sort of spiritual thinking that would allow him to be closer, seeing evidence of his return in anything that happens. It's beautiful and heartbreaking, what an amazing actress.

Hold on to people while they're near you.

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