Director: Tsai Ming-liang
Starring: Lee Kang-sheng, Chen Shiang-chyi, Lu Yi-Ching
You would be hard pressed to find a lonelier movie than Tsai Ming-liang's What Time Is It There?. A story of isolation, longing, grief, and despair, What Time Is It There? is without question a bleak film, but thanks to Tsai's delicate and deeply humane approach, it isn't bleak in the way that makes it unwatchable or unbearably depressing. Instead it is beautiful and hypnotic, a rich piece of work that leaves you with plenty to ponder when it's finished, and which reveals new layers with subsequent viewings. Though it comes in at just under two hours, it is definitely a very slow moving film and requires patience on the part of the viewer - but that patience is definitely rewarded.
There are three principal characters in What Time Is It There?: Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng), a street vendor who sells watches, his Mother (Lu Yi-Ching), who becomes a widow during the film's opening passage, and Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi), a woman that Hsiao-kang meets when she decides to buy one of his watches. The watch that she wants is not in the case that Hsiao-kang carries with him, however, but is the one that he wears and that he's reluctant to part with. Eventually they come to a deal and Shiang-chyi goes on her way, which in this case is an open-ended trip to Paris, while Hsiao-kang returns to the apartment that he shares with his Mother, who is obsessed with the notion that her husband's spirit remains in the apartment, possibly reincarnated as a cockroach that Hsaio-kang finds skittering across the floor, possibly as the fish floating in their tank. As time passes, the Mother becomes increasingly obsessed with communicating with her husband's spirit and in making the apartment "comfortable" for him in his new state of being, annoying Hsaio-kang who quickly loses patience with her single-minded pursuit, even as he succumbs to his own obsession. Ever since his encounter with Shiang-chyi, he's had a compulsion to turn every clock he comes into contact with to Paris time. It begins with the watches in his case, proceeds to clocks in stores, and in one particularly whimsical scene he fashions a device which allows him to lean over the side of a building and manipulate the hands of the giant clock on its wall. He can't help himself, turning back the clocks has simply become as natural to him as breathing.
In Paris, meanwhile, Shiang-chyi wanders seemingly without purpose, as if in a dream. The exact nature of her visit isn't clear; she seems to no know one there, she doesn't appear to be doing much sightseeing, and often she seems miserable, battling either sickness or a bone-deep sadness. She connects with no one until she meets a woman in a restaurant (Cecilia Yip) who shares her language and with whom she can enjoy the simple pleasure of talking about ordinary things. The relief she feels about this, to be able to communicate with someone after feeling so cut off and alienated, is palpable but she perhaps clings too fiercely to this feeling, willing the connection to be more than it is in the hope that it will spare her from the pain of loneliness. Eventually she, Hsaio-kang, and the Mother will all seek sexual solace in ways that are, at best, ill-conceived and at worst have the opposite effect to the one they were seeking. There is an emptiness inside of all of them that they cannot escape and they cannot alleviate. They can only seek ways to endure it.
Though it is told in a serious tone, there is nevertheless a sense that Tsai is sometimes winking at the audience, whether it's with that sequence with the giant clock mounted near the top of a building, or the unexpected conclusion to Hsaio-kang's pursuit of a man who purloins a clock that Hsaio-kang had himself stolen off a wall, or the fact that Hsaio-kang watches The 400 Blows as part of an effort to feel closer to Shiang-chyi and later on she encounters a man who introduces himself as Jean-Pierre and is played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, star of The 400 Blows. There is also a strong sense of the spiritual or otherworldly spread throughout the film which opens it up to multiple readings. It is possible that What Time Is It There? truly is telling a story about a man who meets a woman just before she goes to Paris. It is also possible that Paris is a metaphor and that what actually happened is that Shiang-chyi died and is struggling as she takes her first steps into the afterlife. Consider the way that she seems so unhappy to be there but cannot leave, or consider the character whose presence bookends the film and what his appearance at the end (and where he appears) means. What if Hsaio-kang and Shiang-chyi are not really separated by something as surmountable as geography, but by the division between life and death, and what if his preoccupation with clocks is a manifestation of his grief in the same way that his Mother's preoccupation with ensuring that the apartment is attractive to ghosts is a manifestation of her grief for her husband? She is desperate to communicate with the man she lost, just as her son is desperate to connect with the woman he found and lost in such quick succession.
What Time Is It There invites such questions without openly and definitively answering them, allowing the viewer to instead take from it what they will. As you're watching it, you may not even be aware that you're taking anything from it; it's a story that flows in such a way that its impact might seem merely superficial at first, and it's only afterwards that you realize how deeply it's dug itself in. The power of Tsai's work here is in how ultimately unassuming the film is, how it presents you with seemingly simple, straightforward scenes and then forces you to rethink them after the fact and recalibrate your assumptions about what kind of story the film is really telling. What Time Is It There? is a beautifully rendered piece of work that manages to be brooding without being oppressively so, and even manages to mix just a touch of lightness in as well. It's a wonderful film.