The most significant encounter, of course, was with the young woman heading to Paris, the "there" in What Time is it There? I believe she is a ghost and her contact with Xiao Kang and the exchange of the watch is somehow responsible for his peculiar behavior and experiences. If France can be taken to be a metaphor for death or the "otherworld," then Xiao Kang's strange fascination with all things French can be seen as his desire to understand his father's death. Viewing an old French film becomes a way to catch a glimpse of the "otherworld" where his father might be. Drinking French wine may be yet another method to reach the trance-like state that facilitates communication with his father.
Tsai explores the various avenues of communication between the living and the dead. He shows the Buddhist rituals, the food offerings, burning ghost money, etc., intended to establish contact or at least help the deceased. He shows how non-spiritual ways such as memories, mementos, and imagination are all employed to keep that person "alive." Xiao Kang's tampering with time is his idiosyncratic approach. We even see him using an antenna, a communication device, to adjust a giant clock. In return for these efforts the deceased is expected to communicate to the living by way of signs or in dreams. We see Xiao Kang crying in his sleep-perhaps a visitation by his father in such a dream. His mother desperately looks for signs of her husband's return, even if it's only as a cockroach or a fish.
Tsai points out in this film that contacting the dead is a difficult and frustrating endeavor only leading to more suffering. He adds that the dead are having an equally difficult and frustrating time communicating with us. Moreover, they are having trouble adjusting to their new reality-at least until reincarnation occurs. The young woman in Paris is seen wandering aimlessly and communicating only with difficulty with the Parisians. Her aborted telephone calls can be seen as attempts to contact the living, probably loved ones. There is evidence that these loved ones are somehow getting through to her; the snack plate she nibbles on in her hotel room uncannily resembles food offerings to the dead. The overwhelming feeling we get from her experience is that of frustration and profound sadness. Her exhaustion and eventual collapse may indicate her resigned acceptance of death.
Xiao Kang's father though appears to be farther along in the process. He seems calm and sure in his actions. His struggle appears over. His walking toward the Ferris wheel is deliberate, reincarnation imminent. The film ends here on this hopeful note.
What Time is it There? has much in common with Tsai Ming-Liang's earlier films. He again explores the difficulty in communicating or establishing connections with others. Only this time he included the dead in his universe and in the process created a rich and mysterious work. Despite an elliptical and metaphoric structure, and despite an imperfect understanding of Buddhist philosophy, upon reflection the meaning of What Time is it There? emerges slowly but surely.