Jay’s review published on Letterboxd:
Story time! So the reason this movie piqued my interest was because this synopsis strikes close to my heart. My girlfriend at the time of this writing is most likely headed to Canada later this year to study there for a while, and we decided to watch this because it seemed like a very sentimental feeling to ponder on. After all, when you meet someone in your life who tugs at your heartstrings in ways that are special, there are these memories and pieces of them that will find ways to devour you whole, irrespective of time and place.
Though this movie did feel somewhat sentimental, I didn't expect it to come off in a way that is both peculiar and hilarious.
What Time Is It There? is the parallel account of two people who meet in a brief encounter over watches. What follows is a series of events that can only be described as Haruki Murakami idiosyncracies invading a world inspired by the pessimism of Roy Andersson. In the hundreds of static shots and oddball behaviors, here lies a movie that simultaneously expresses the universality of alienation in a life where people always seek for company. The humor that fills this story creeps up like an alarm clock about to ring. It is gentle, but once it rings, it rains and pours.
Two big themes that fill this movie are concepts of alienation and time. More than being inspired by the likes of Yasujiro Ozu and Michelangelo Antonioni, Tsai Ming-liang employs these influences to subvert those concepts, and a few others. This movie likes to poke fun at traditional practices, offering to show the ridiculous lengths that some people go to just to honor a dead family member. Anxious feelings of the open space and human obsessions with analog clocks are just some of the few ways that this movie describes alienation and time. To be able to even do all these things in a manner that is just hilarious without being repetitive is just amazing to see.
I suppose that is why this film's more sentimental side of human separation manages to stick the landing without sounding melodramatic. The film's strange atmosphere successfully massages the irrelevance of distance in this world. It doesn't matter where you are, or what time is it there. People will always find ways to be selfish and uncaring, even if you share something intrinsically similar like race or some other piece of identity. There will always be this feeling of claustrophobia no matter how much open air exists between you and the next person. It's just a fact of this naturally weird life we all choose to live in.
When I think about it, there are many brief encounters in my life that I've come to accept as life-changing. It doesn't necessarily have to last for a few seconds. It could be a friend you made at a bar that never came back. A speaker that unknowingly hit you with a line passively delivered. I've yet to have this experience of meeting another person over watches and timepieces, but all these brief moments concede that we're all looking at each other with some degree of strangeness. I think that is the most assuring feeling to think about when I know my girlfriend is headed to another country for a while, and she and I will always have strange encounters to sit through every day. The only difference is I don't have to manually change the time on my clock because she is 12 hours apart.