reibureibu’s review published on Letterboxd:
What Time Is It There? is a film about missed connections, of how people can neglect the time they spend together before being swallowed by regret once they realize they never will again. Ostensibly it's also one on loneliness, alienation, loss, and the past, and by framing it in his incredibly-formalist (but warm) approach Tsai Ming-liang is able to truly push those themes further.
Hsiao-kang is a street vendor who sells watches, and his father has recently passed away. He's affected by this loss but able to move on, something his mother hasn't yet realized as she spends her time and energy reincarnating her late husband. This isn't literal of course, though in a sense it may as well be; she has mediums perform rituals and give her advice on how to communicate with the dead, she believes her late husband has perhaps reincarnated as Hsiao-kang's fish, she takes his ashes from the columbarium and masturbates with the urn, all of this to the point where she neglects her son – her remaining familial bond whose earthly presence is self-evident.
"Come on. Sell me this one."
"It'd be bad luck to own my watch."
"Someone in my family just died. I'm in mourning. I can't sell it to you."
Meanwhile Hsiao-kang sells a watch to a girl. She wants his watch though he hesitates at first. She repeatedly insists and we understand some sort of bond must exist. She flies to Paris where she never sees him again, and ends up alienated and even lonelier than before. Meanwhile he begins to turn all clocks he encounters to Paris time.
How Tsai Ming-liang is able to depict such complex themes with such minimal dialogue and pure mise-en-scene is absolutely masterful and perhaps the purest way possible. There are no camera movements, no distractions, no extraneous dialogue and not a wasted word, there is only a rich and elliptical narrative that's stripped down to its barest bones and thus becomes strangely raw and frankly tragic. (Missed) synchronicity in every sense of the word.