Isolation and loneliness are the hallmarks of the modern condition, or so the films of Tsai Ming-liang, of the three I have seen (Vive L’Amour
, Dong/The Hole
, and What Time is it There?
), only one, The Hole
has the characters truly connecting in a meaningful way, in one of the more sublime moments in recent cinema. What Time is it There?
is more in the line of Vive L’Amour
, though not as bleak (Vive L’amour
ends with a static close-up of the main actress Yang Kuei-mei sobbing, there is similar scene in What Time is it There?
, where the actress Chen Shiang-chyi sits on a park bench; she too is captured in close-up, but instead of being wracked by tears, her lips and eyes quiver, she’s holding back, and only a few tears escape her eyes, rolling down her extremely pale cheeks). It would be interesting (at least for me) to see how the film compares to Tsai Ming-liang’s two other features, Rebels of a Neon God
and The River
What Time is it There?
reprises many of Tsai Ming-liang’s recent formal attributes: extremely long takes, often in a long shot; static camera set-ups; the very minimum of dialogue; this along with the added bonus of Benoit Delhomme’s exquisite cinematography (the exteriors, and most of the anonymous interiors of Paris and Taipei are cold, dominated by whites, grays, and blues; there is a much more vibrant color contrast in the apartment where two of the main characters live, well, at least until the mother turns of the power, with zones of reds, blues, and greens). Tsai Ming-liang’s articulation of space is particularly interesting: he typically shoots in rather long shots, in relatively deep focus, so that, in what would be in reality, rather small spaces, feel cavernous, especially when devoid of people or furnishings (there are actually few characters in most scenes, usually one or two; their are several exceptions in Paris, but in these scenes, Shiang-chyi, is more alone then every, largely cut off from the people surrounding her by a linguistic gulf). Paradoxically, while these small spaces (and even larger ones) have the feel of something larger, the static camera creates a rigid, cramped, boxed-in feel. Effectively, these characters are trapped, isolated, alone.
The characters in the film barely talk to each other, even though they are aware, sometimes,well oftentimes, painfully aware of each other’s presence. The father, whose death opens the film (I got the distinct impression it was suicide), and appears, alive in only two scenes, makes his presence conspicuous by his absence. The other living characters are literally separated by spatial, temporal, and linguistic gulfs, especially the extremely stricken Shiang-chyi, seemingly trapped in Paris (the films doesn’t really make it clear whether she is a tourist or a student). She’s plainly alone; at times she fumbles around, trying to find the phone number to a person in Taipei she barely knows. She suffers from insomnia, she is constantly checking her dual-time watch, her neighbors above her make strange noises late at night, she has no one to talk to, and she gets lost easily. Her gulf is made literal in a scene at a Metro platform; an Asian man, presumably Chinese, is on the other side of the tracks, on the opposite platform. He looks at her, with an expression that is hungry for contact, but she does nothing, can do nothing, as she is quite literally, physically, separated from him. She does eventually make contact with a few people; a couple of short exchanges in a restraunt, a chance meeting with a middle-aged Parisian man, played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, who give her his phone number (Leaud appears once in his present day incarnation; and twice in film clips of Truffaut’s 400 Blows
, another film about a lost, lonely person in the modern metropolis; another parallel, Leaud is to Truffaut, as Lee Kang-sheng is to Tsai Ming-liang), and finally, a Chinese woman from Hong Kong, another person alone in Paris. In one of the more touching scenes, she reaches out to this woman for physical intimacy (in a night of failed intimacy for all three of the main characters), it’s tentative, and unfortunately the other woman pulls away, again leaving Shiang-chyi ultimately alone.
The other two mains characters, Hsaio Kang, and his grieving mother, are in far less desperate straights, though they have their share of problems. Hsaio Kang is largely aimless, he makes a living by selling watches on the streets and overpasses of Taipei (which is how he meets Shiang-chyi, he sells her his watch, though he warns her, that since he is still mourning, it will bring her bad luck), lives in fear of his father’s ghost, and becomes increasingly baffled by his mother’s bizarre behavior. The mother is desperate for her husband to return to her in some form. She hirers traditional sorcerers and monks to work magic for her, she cooks food for her dead husband (comically, once Hsiao Kang begins to turn the clocks back to Paris time, she thinks her husband is responsible, and begins making dinner at 12am, per her husband’s apparent wishes), desperately looks to her animals for any signs of her reincarnated husband (at one point, chastising her son for feeding a cockroach the pet fish), and ultimately blocking out all of the light in her house, because she thinks her husband isn’t coming back to her because he fears the light. Hsaio Kang will have none of this, correctly thinking it is absurd, but he is transfixed by his own ideas. After selling his watch to Shiang-chyi, he becomes slightly interested in Paris, renting the 400 Blows
, and eventually, going around Taipei, resetting various clocks to Parisian time. Eventually, he leaves (or is kicked out) his mother’s tenement flat, and lives out of his car, eating meat on a stick and drinking French wine, as he tries to complete his work. The same night that, Shiang-chyi reaches ot the Hong Kong woman in Paris, Hsaio Kang has sex in his car, while his mother, dons an cheong sam, and waits for her husband spirit, eventually masturbating with a wicker basket (containing what, I do not know). After that night, Hsiao Kang returns to his mother’s house, tears down barriers to the light and lies down to sleep at his mother’s side.
What I have just described may not seem like a barrel of laughs, but rest assured, What Times is it There?
is a frequently funny film, in absurdist, deadpan manner. Some key funny moments, Hsiao Kang repeatedly knocking an “unbreakable” watch against a metal railing, trying to drum up business, or stave off boredom; when the “fat guy” (as he is credited in the movie) tries to pick up Hsiao Kang in the bathroom of a movie theater (something is readjusting that clock!), when the lost Shiang-chyi follows a French woman home through the streets, the click-clack of feet on cobblestones echoing on the soundtrack, speeding up and slowing down; or the penultimate scene, where a bunch of kids steal the sleeping Shiang-chyi’s luggage and throw it into a pond; in one long take, it floats all the way across the screen, as Shiang-chyi sleeps on a bench in the foreground of the shot.
This shot leads to a final, ambiguous, yet poetic scene. An elderly, well-dressed Chinese man fishes Shiang-chyi’s luggage out of the pond with his umbrellas, sets it down, and turns and walks towards the ferris wheel in the distance, before the screen fades to black and a memorium comes on screen, dedicating the film to Tsai Ming-liang and Lee Kang-sheng’s fathers. The man who fishes out the suitcase is played by the same actor who played Hsiao Kang’s father. How or why, it is never explained.