The Taiwanese film “What Time Is It There?” (2001, Tsai Ming-Liang) establishes a world of floating time and space with a unique style of minimalist dialogues and still camera angles. Just like many other of Tsai’s films, it is far from relaxing — it instead builds up a sense of aimlessness and miscommunication in mundane situations that most of us are able to identify with. Even though his styles is not attractive to all viewers, watching his movies is still an interesting experience. I started the journey of appreciating Tsai’s films long ago, and whenever I pick up a relatively new movie made by him, I know I will find something fascinating.
The story opens with a nameless father who tries to call his son for dinner but receives no response. The son, Hsiao-Kang, later shows up on the streets of Taipei selling watches, and the audience learns that Hsiao-Kang is actually a watch vendor who does not earn much for a living. After he sells his watch to Shiang-Chyi — a lady who claims that she will visit Paris soon for a vacation — Hsiao-Kang becomes obsessed with clocks, watches and anything that shows the current time. He is weirdly passionate about adjusting the time on every clock that he can find in order to correspond to Paris time. He even buys French film DVDs and dreams of the foreign country, and Shiang-Chyi becomes the source of his obsession despite the extremely short conversation they have had. Meanwhile, Hsiao-Kang’s mother experiences great grief after the death of her husband. She becomes obsessed with time as well, because she is convinced that the soul of her husband will only return at midnight. She starts to make dinners only at midnight, and turns off every single light in the apartment because her husband does not like brightness. Grappling with the odd behavior of his mother and the unexpected death of his father, Hsiao-Kang is emotionless, holding onto his craze for time.
This opening scene of this film speaks to the overall style. The miscommunication is prevalent in that all of the characters fail to identify with other people as they converse, or they just simply do not converse at all. Even when Shiang-Chyi arrives at Paris, she experiences the constant failure of being lost in translation. She cannot speak French at all, and because of that, she is not even able to order meals in restaurants. Throughout the film, we always see her wandering around in Paris, walking in the subway without destination, and following the big crowd wherever she goes. On the other hand, Hsiao-Kang chooses not to talk with his grieving mother and wanders in the city of Taipei, trying to look for clocks that he can adjust time on. The camera travels back and forth between Taipei and Paris, depicting two lonely young people who are lost in modern metropolis and yearning for mutual identification.
Such loneliness is shown more deeply in Tsai’s cinematography as well as cinematic techniques. The audience consistently faces a static point of view, no matter if it’s in Hsiao-Kang’s apartment or in other locations. This unchanging camera position hints at the stagnant mental state of the characters as well. Until the end of the film, Hsiao-Kang fails to communicate effectively with his mother, and Shiang-Chyi lingers in the barren graveyard at the end of the movie. Their solitary bodies are so significantly represented that even the viewers feel a sense of isolation.
Another way Tsai shows the incommunicability is through the depiction of unfulfilled sexual desires. Bodies are always important elements in Tsai’s films, and sex as well as other bodily needs have been the highlight of his representation. When we see Hsiao-Kang’s mother trying to masturbate using her husband’s used pillow, there is no background music to accompany the scene, and we are left with the awkwardly long take of masturbation that is almost silent. However, she is then struck again by the feeling of helplessness after this act, sinasce she becomes obviously even more obsessed with letting her husband’s soul return instead of listening to her son’s needs. On the other hand, Shiang-Chyi meets a Chinese girl in a restaurant in Paris, and the two of them, both outsiders to local culture, decide to share the bed at night when they exchange a kiss. While we expect this kiss to be the signal of developing connections, we see Shiang-Chyi immediately leave the next morning. The failure of the completion of sexual act speaks to the characters’ unwillingness to identify with other people within the relatively confined space — the apartment for mother, the bedroom for Shiang-Chyi.
Tsai is known for his auteurship, which is shown through his consistent representation of isolated bodies, mundane lives, and lack of conversation. His films are bizarre metaphors for modern city life, and although not everyone finds his works pleasing to watch, we can definitely identify with one or two characters. Once we pick up on his series of films, we will be surprised to discover how much similarity they actually share, and how Tsai can represent the same topic with the same actors but using different sets of filmic metaphors. The experience of comparing Tsai’s various films is definitely a delight for me.
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