What Time Is It There?

What Time Is It There? ★★★★

***Spoilers, flagged in the text, to discuss the film’s ending***
I had done no pre-reading about the first film in Melbourne Cinémathèque’s Tsai Ming-Liang season so was able to come to this story with no preconceptions and no idea of where the story was going to go.  The screenplay by Tsai and Yang Pi-ying is the flimsiest possible base on which to create a love story but Tsai’s parallel structure, links between the two stories, and a very subtle shift, along the way, from plot to mood made it work for me.

Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng) is a 20-something man who ekes out a living selling watches out of a traveller’s display case on a footpath in Taipei. A young woman who is about to relocate to Paris, Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi) checks out dual-time watches but pressures him to sell her the one that he is wearing.  After initially refusing to sell it, because, he says, it would be bad luck (his father has just died), he gives her his phone number and then agrees to sell the watch when she calls him the following day.

The rest of the film follows their lives in different time zones in Taiwan and France.  Hsiao-kang’s mother (Lu Yi-ching) is experiencing prolonged complex grief and this is causing some tension at home as he does not really know how to deal with this.  His escape is to fixate on Shiang-chyi, to the extent that he dreams of her, watches François Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959) on TV because it is French, and begins changing all of his watches and any clocks that he can access to Paris time (his mother thinks that the time change on the clock in their house is the longed-for sign that her husband’s ghost has paid her a visit).  In Paris, Shiang-chyi is lonely, unhappy and missing home.  She stays mostly in her room but does visit Le Cimetière du Montparnasse (much less cheerful than Père Lachaise) where she sits on a bench beside Jean-Pierre Léaud (who has starred, as a much younger man, in Truffaut’s film that Hsiao-kang had watched).  

Somewhere along the way to this point, the film has become less a story about these three characters and more a meditation on aloneness, loneliness, grief and alienation (although Tsai’s insertion of moments of comic relief means it never becomes oppressive).  The slim foundation on which the plot is grounded does not matter anymore - all three are dealing with idealised notions of the person on whom they are fixated. Tsai seems to be suggesting that the physical absence of the person who is at the centre of your romantic dreams (fantasies?) means you can write them a role as a perfect partner. Hsiao-kang’s father, who is far from perfect when we see him in the opening scenes, becomes the perfect husband in his wife’s eyes as soon as he dies.  And, in their loneliness, Hsiao-kang and Shiang-chyi can dream of the other as everything they might want in a lover, based on little more than a fleeting commercial transaction.

However, in Tsai’s world, romantic longing only gets you so far and all three characters attempt to bridge the gap with physical contact (it does not bridge the emotional gap, of course):  Hsiao-kang’s mother masturbates outside her clothes with a woven basket;  Shiang-chyi allows herself to be picked up in a restaurant by a Chinese woman but, although they kiss (and presumably have sex), the woman politely rebuffs her when she wants to snuggle; and Hsiao-kang has sex in his car with a street sex worker then nods off, at which point she does a runner with his display case of watches.

***Spoilers in the following two paragraphs***
The ending is ambiguous on a number of levels.  Hsiao-kang, after waking up in his car, returns home and lies down next to his sleeping mother. Is this a sign of reconciliation between them or a reversion to his childhood, or ??? Does he know his stock of watches has been ripped off?  In one of the spatial parallels, Shiang-chyi also has her suitcase stolen.  We see her sitting and crying with the suitcase at her side beside a large shallow pool in a park.  She takes something from a blister pack in her purse and, after she falls asleep, people take her suitcase (and after taking anything valuable from it?) reappear and float the suitcase out into the pool.

The tablet(s) set up the possibility that she has taken an overdose, particularly as the ghost of Hsiao-kang’s father manifests and rescues her suitcase from the pond with the handle of his umbrella. Even if you are distressed, it does not make sense to take one sleeping pill in a public place in Paris if you have everything you own in the suitcase beside you. The final irony, of course is that the ghost of Hsiao-kang’s father appears in Paris rather than in Taipei.  Given the mood of emotional longing that Tsai has been carefully cultivating, this final plot twist is another example  of the film flipping between humour and pathos (in aesthetic terms).

Benoît Delhomme is one of my favourite cinematographers and I marvelled throughout the film at how much depth he was able to get into his frames in his long static takes.  The standard seemed to be three or four planes in most shots and there were a couple of times (one was Shiang-chyi walking towards the camera in a Paris Metro subway) where 
I counted twelve planes through which the actor moved.  I will be interested to check whether Tsai and his cinematographers stick to this depth in their framing in the remaining films in this season.  

Watched a 35mm print as part of the Melbourne Cinémathèque season: One Day at a Time: The Cinema of Tsai Ming-Liang.  Jessica Balanzategui’s film notes are available at Senses of Cinema.

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