The film opens with a medium shot inside a small home, which could be mistaken for a photograph were it not for an old man slowly moving up and down the hallway between his dining room, his kitchen, and his son’s bedroom. He has prepared a meal, and as it sits hot on the table, he calls out for his son, presumably to come and eat. He receives no answer, so he moves beyond the kitchen, onto the patio, and after moving a plant, he gazes out beyond the house.Next comes an immediate cut to his son, Hsaio-kang (Lee Kang-sheng) holding an urn, on his way to bury his father’s ashes. The cut between these two scenes is abrupt, creating a jarring sense of disillusionment that serves this moment of vulnerability well. The father’s gaze has gone unmet, and in this single cut, already there is a palpable sense of loss and guilt over things unsaid. The meaning is created through these scenes occurring one right after the other. Nothing much happens in either scene, yet when brought into contact with one another, the significance of each begins to become apparent.
What Time Is It There?, by director Tsai Ming-Liang is full of these strange juxtapositions, as the edits between scenes create both discontinuity and synchronicity. The scenes themselves contain little dialogue (and sometimes none at all). Often, not much of consequence seems to occur in any single scene. The acting is mostly nondescript, with the character of Mother (Lu Yi-Ching) getting the most opportunity to emote. All of this reminds me of the Bresson films I have seen, especially Au hasard Balthazar.
The story itself is rather simple. After Hsaio-kang’s father dies, he meets a woman, Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi) while selling watches as a street vendor. She wants to buy his own watch, which he eventually agrees to, and then she treks off to Paris. Yet in his fragile state, his memory of her is strong, and he finds himself thinking about her quite often. He starts trying to track down French films, and eventually begins resetting clocks he sees to Paris time. She too longs for connection, sitting in a crowded French café alone, listening to her upstairs neighbors walk through their apartment, and so on. Hsaio-kang’s mother also suffers from loneliness, wanting nothing more than to welcome her husband home in his reincarnated body. This film is about going on a journey with these people in exploring certain aspects of the human experience. It is a glorious and beautiful trip, that concludes with a scene of such simplicity and beauty that I find deeply affecting, even if I am not sure what it all means.
A couple of other observations: After the first couple of scenes, as I settled in for long static shots, with little movement and dialogue, I was pleasantly surprised by the liberal use of comedy throughout the film. Often, comedic scenes involve characters going in one direction and for some reason, immediately turning around and going back the way they came. Hsaio-kang creeping into his hallway, or Shiang-chyi following a stranger on her way home come to mind as examples of this.
Second, it seems Tsai is especially concerned with the bodies and the physicality of his characters. It often feels as if the shot is pushing us to look closely at the actors. The nondescript acting and static shots no doubt encourage this phenomenon. I think here of Shiang-chyi’s brief friendship with the woman in Paris (Cecilia Yip). In one scene, Shiang-chyi simply looks at this woman as she moves ever closer to her. Yet the camera is firmly on Shiang-chyi’s face, and we are invited to look at her, to invest some thought and imagination as to what she might be thinking and feeling at that moment. This is a kind of filmmaking that challenges the viewer to engage what they see on the screen. I look forward to seeing more of Tsai’s films.