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Mabel, a wife and mother, is loved by her husband Nick but her madness proves to be a problem in the marriage. The film transpires to a positive role of madness in the family, challenging conventional representations of madness in cinema.
When a young street vendor with a grim home life meets a woman on her way to Paris, they forge an instant connection. He changes all the clocks in Taipei to French time; as he watches François Truffaut's "Les 400 Coups," she has a strange encounter with its now-aging star, Jean-Pierre Leaud. Written by
The invisible thread of time, strong as steel wire, fragile as spider web, binds us together, pulls us apart. Here, parallel plots: the young son pining for an absent love, the old mother mourning for the newly dead, both violate time, long across uncrossable voids, she into the past, he, the future, their loneliness unbridgeable.
The style is formal, premeditated, the story told in small details. To enlarge these details, to make the silent shout, Mr. Tsai eliminates all distractions: the smallest actions unfold in the midst of extended static shots, big chunks of real-time, which swallow actions and actors whole, engulfing them in an empty sea of possibility, endless time. The camera never blinks.
It's a narrative of still pictures, minimal dialogue, now like Jacques Tati, now Jim Jarmusch, pathos and absurdity seamlessly mixed, inseparable. The Taiwanese, relatively recent entrants into modernity, still feel the numbness, the ugliness and pain.
Rough outline: A young man (Lee Kang-Sheng) sells watches on the sidewalks of Taipei. His father dies. A young woman (Chen Shiang-Chyi) nags him into selling her his own watch just before she departs for Paris. Traditional rites and superstitions are carried out to honor, appease, and entice the spirit of the dead. His mother (Lu Yi-Ching) goes crazy with grief. He starts setting every clock in sight to Parisian time; he mocks his mother's preoccupation even as he's lost in his own. Time stops for both mother and son. They're stuck. The young woman, too, is stuck. Alone in Paris, she starves for company, misses the young man who sold her the watch, and disappears into the anomie of the modern city. Each of the three stumbles down a valley of humiliation and despair into his or her own catharsis, reattaching miserably to the here and now, relinquishing the torment of the ideal and eternal. Time resumes.
Almost every shot holds a fascination, intimates meanings, symbolism; the ineffable is almost made manifest. The woman dreams on as the city steals everything she has; her suitcase floats by as in a dream (hers or ours?). The walls of her tiny hotel room rumble like the bowels of a large beast. A man with a cane in front of a Ferris wheel looks extremely Fellini-esque, or perhaps a bit like an Asian Salvador Dali? (his weary face recalls that of the dead father). Luminescent fish swim impassively in the darkness of the dead man's apartment. Images of i The 400 Blows recur; its dispossessed echo the film's own. There are too many associations, fleeting and vague, ghosting each scene to effectively ever chronicle or analytically disentangle. The movie bears repeat viewing.
Here's that magic of image, of seeing, that can't really be reduced to words, described, or explained. It casts a spell, takes us out of time as well.
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