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As the credits began to roll after the screening of Tsai Ming-Liang's latest movie What Time is it There? a crowd quickly assembled in front of an enlarged NYT review thoughtfully set up in the lobby. There was a palpable hunger to understand this enigmatic film. Their frustration no doubt was compounded by the feeling that this movie was not just an exercise in absurdity but that something significant was going on. My companion and I left the theater in a similar frame of mind. Being admirers of Tsai and familiar with all his major cinematic works we knew that this one was successful and we marveled at his unbroken string of remarkable films. But this one seemed more of a puzzle than the others and we had to figure it out.
The story is deceptively simple. A man dies alone in his small apartment he shares with his son (Xiao Kang) and wife. After the interment of his remains and a simple religious ceremony the son returns to his work selling watches on the sidewalk. There he meets an attractive young woman who after examining his merchandise insists on purchasing the very watch Xiao Kang is wearing. He politely refuses but she is adamant and finally persuades him to part with it. He learns she is flying to Paris the next day. Meanwhile his mother is preoccupied with the reincarnation of her husband and dutifully carries out religious practices to ensure his reincarnation is successful. It appears she expects him to return to life or at least attempt to communicate with her. She is devastated by the sudden loss and becomes increasingly unhappy and her efforts at communication border on the hysterical. Xiao Kang is newly fascinated with all things French and inexplicably begins turning all clocks to Paris time. This increasingly becomes an obsession and he goes from changing his own timepieces to adjusting public clocks.
The scene then shifts to Paris where we follow the young woman through a rather non- descript area of Paris. She seems disoriented and sad, unable to properly communicate with busy Parisians. She occasionally tries to telephone someone but is frustrated in her efforts. Becoming ill in a restaurant she meets a kind fellow Chinese woman she can talk to, but after a thwarted romantic advance towards the woman she is left to wander the streets more miserable than ever. Falling asleep on a park bench, she is robbed of her suitcase by a group of boys who toss it in a lake. The suitcase drifts out of sight but is recovered from the edge by a man who is none other than the dead father. He is then seen slowly walking towards a large illuminated Ferris wheel slowly spinning in the distance. The movie end.
On the surface What Time is it There? looks a lot like his previous films. Tsai even used the same three actors portraying a family in two other movies, although one should not presume they are the same people. As in his other films, we find sad, alienated people doing strange obsessive things, characters unable to communicate with each other in a sterile, ugly urban milieu, all themes familiar to Tsai's admirers. But that stunning ending changed everything and called into question all that came before it. The questions piled up. Is he dead? Is he reincarnated? Why is he in Paris? What does the girl have to do with him? Is she dead? We looked for answers and as we talked a sort of poetic sense emerged and actions that seemed absurd suddenly became purposeful. Tsai was communicating to us in an indirect metaphorical language, one that had to be decoded, and not simply passively experienced. We were forced to look back for clues, for signs, much like the son and mother looked for signs from the dead father of his imminent reincarnation.
What emerged from our discussion was that What Time is it There? is in its essence a spiritual film, a meditation on the meaning of death with conclusions drawn from traditional Buddhist belief and Tsai's own take on the subject. Buddhist symbols of reincarnation abound, though in modern form. The face of a clock, a waterwheel in an urban mall, the great Ferris wheel, are all reminiscent of the traditional Buddhist symbols of reincarnation. The act of turning back clocks may be a modern way Xiao Kang is trying to (consciously or not) manipulate the process, in contrast to the conventional religious methods his mother employs to the same end. Xiao Kang's existence becomes trance-like; he seems to have no customers, and the few encounters he does have take on mystical dimensions. The "pervert" who runs off with Xiao Kang's stolen clock may be warning him albeit humorously not to "screw" with time. Similarly the prostitute who steals his case of watches perhaps intends a punishment for his insistent interference in matters he does not truly understand. (continued in Part2... )
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
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.
(...continued from Part1)
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.
No lengthy review from me this time, just a very small personal musing,
as I'm in a melancholy mood, because it's Christmas...
Funny how movies can connect. Like lives sometimes do, I suppose. The oddball male protagonist of "What time is it there" watches Truffaut's "Les Quatre-Cents Coups", as a way to somehow connect himself to the girl who is obviously the girl of his dreams, even though he's only barely met her, when she bought his watch before going away to Paris. He also, of course, sets all the clocks in his house, and all other clocks he can get his hands on, to Paris time, prompting his mother to think that the ghost of her dead husband has returned. The watch can show two different times at once, and the girl want to be able to see Taipei time as well as Paris time, to keep herself connected to her own country whilst abroad.
In one scene in "Les Quatre-Cents Coups", the two rebellious boys steal a movie poster outside a theater. The poster (look carefully, or you'll miss it) shows Harriet Andersson in a famous pose from Bergman's "Summer with Monica". Another connection. I don't know if it means anything.
This year, I gave my ex-girlfriend all three movies - "What Time is it There", "Les Quatre-Cents Coups" and "Summer with Monica" - for Christmas. I guess it was an attempt to connect myself back with her. We always shared a love of movies, Bergman in particular, and I think I wanted to tell her something. Perhaps that sometimes lives and the common themes in them stick together and connect across oceans, across time, across our personal universes, in ways that can be hard to recognize, but that are impossible to deny.
Well, in any case, I don't think she picked up on it. She's still my ex-girlfriend, she's still away in some far-off land, and I'm still here alone and pretty much miserable. I'm still glad that I gave her those three movies, though. It's only right that she should have them, too, as she still has my entire DVD collection.
I guess I didn't pay enough attention to the fact that in all three movies, human connections ultimately fail or break down. The two boys in "Les Quatre-Cents Coups" are broken out of their doomed youthful rebellion and torn apart by society and the pressures of the world. In Bergman's film, Monica abandons Harry by her own volition and leaves him heartbroken (like I am now) because she is to much of a dionysiac to deal with an ordered, adult, appolinian life. In "What Time is it There", there's hardly any initial optimism to destroy. Every person is an island from the outset, and when they long for connectedness, it's in a silent, subdued way, like their hearts have already been broken in advance and they are only going through familiar motions by some force of habit, but without real hope. The girl attempts a lesbian affair that fails as soon as it's initiated. The boy takes out his frustration in an impersonal encounter with a prostitute. The mother is last seen in a heartbreaking masturbation scene that more than anything else seems like sex with a ghost.
In one celebrated scene, the girl meets Jean-Pierre Leud, who played the lead role in "Les Quatre-Cents Coups", in a Paris cemetery. He is now a middle-aged man. He's a ghost as well, the ghost of the boy in Truffaut's movie, that another boy is compulsively watching in Taipei while thinking of the girl, who in return hardly knows that he exists. She doesn't recognize him. He gives her his phone number and tells her only his first name. She just seems to think he's some nut case. Nothing comes of it. That is all. Connections attempt to be made. They fail completely.
At the very end, of course, the ghost of the dead father and husband does indeed materialize itself. However, it is not to the wife and son in Taipei, but, mysteriously, to the girl in Paris. She doesn't see him. She is asleep in a chair in a Paris park. Perhaps she's just exhausted from loneliness, perhaps her own personal clock is still set to Taipei time.
Oh well. Maybe I'll feel better in the new year. Happy holidays to all.
This film-known in the US as "What Time is it There?" captured me in ways that I never expected a film to be able to do. Do not see this film seeking plot-linear connections-causal relationships. See this film to slip into a different view of the world we occupy. A world where feelings for one another do not necessarily have results we are aware of. Where the occasion of place and time and circumstance carry weights of understanding without explanation. I can only really tell you this film is slow-and deeply touching; plotless and driven by the regard for the persons in it; visually stunning without any visual trickery. Overall this film went instantly to the top of my own personal "best movies" and I don't even know how to tell you about it. Do see it.
Tsai Ming-Liang is a Director you either "get" or don't. His work reminds me to a point of Jim Jarmusch, their pacing is similar. If you've ever seen and liked Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise", you will probably like this. The story introduces you to people who lead mostly ordinary lives, just in Taipei. Ming-Liang's use of the long shot (setting up a scene and waiting for something to happen-usually, very little does) is very important. I think it adds to the simplicity of the story, ostensibly about a watch salesman who sells the young lady the watch he is wearing. He then changes the clocks in Taipei to Parisian time, where the young lady is going on vacation. The film also captures the side story of the watch salesman's mom, who just lost her husband. She looks for ways for him to "come back". It is a bit sad, but also touching. She almost steals the film. For lovers of independent film, a must. If you liked "The Departed", forget it. I'd like to add two things: The interlude "The Skywalk Is Gone", appended on the "Goodbye, Dragon Inn" DVD, is a 20 minute short which is also worthwhile, continues the story. Lastly, "The Wayward Cloud", the real sequel, is not quite as good (I give it 7 out of 10). It has images of fairly explicit pornography. I do recommend it, but it, like all of Ming-Liang's films, is uncompromising. The only major complaint I have with it is the mother is barely in it. I miss her. I want to tell you how it ends, but I can't, I can't spoil it. In the theater watching "The Wayward Cloud", the guy sitting behind me was flat out snoring. I was wide awake. All in all, "What Time Is It There" cemented Tsai Ming-Liang's reputation as a force to be reckoned with. He deserves the praise.
What Time Is It There at a first glance is a boring, frustrating and
complex puzzle of broken narratives which leave the viewer struggling
to stay out of a sleepy haze and focus long enough to draw some sort of
cinematic conclusion to an otherwise ambiguous film. Yet once all the
amateur film goers and the rest of ADHD ridden America, the true film
goers can marvel at a cinematic masterpiece, so far on the spectrum of
complexity that it almost goes full circle to simplicity. Full circle
being the key phrase here.
Much like other Asian filmmakers, Tsai deals with alienation, loss, and a search for something. The story of the film is simple: a boy's father dies and he and his mother are forced to deal with the loss. If you look for anything, story wise beyond this, you must look harder. The film shows how these two individuals deal with loss through their own idiosyncrasies, yet they both are getting at the same thing. Reincarnation. The young man meets a woman who wants to buy his watch and after some prodding, he relinquishes it. Whether it is because of her or not, he becomes obsessed with turning back the clocks he encounters, as if he is literally trying to turn back time itself. It even becomes quite comical at times when he goes to all sorts of lengths to turn back the clock. While his mother on the other hand deals with reincarnation in the literal sense through her religion. She rigorously practices her faith in hopes of bringing back her husband. In fact she becomes so obsessed with it that she believes he is trying to contact her and won't hear otherwise. Both contrasting view points on reincarnation show the different beliefs on religion and science not fully marrying the film to one of the ideas.
The imagery that comes with these practices is astounding. Tsai has shown that he is the master of mise en scene. Each scene has the camera set up in one position and doesn't move or cut until the end of the scene. The eye is allowed to move freely about the depth of the image while finding the imagery Tsai leaves behind as clues. He uses a water wheel in a mall, a Ferris wheel, and clock faces to show the visual interpretation of turning back the clock. The final image of the film is the Ferris wheel spinning counter clockwise leaving a retrospective idea in the viewers mind.
Truly this film tackles the idea of reincarnation and the dealing with loss and alienation so masterfully that any who attempt to address the same subject matter will just feel like a weak attempt. Tsai's What Time Is It There truly is a simple story with complex themes and visuals that is unlike any film going experience that should be appreciated for its content and relevance and not its entertainment value.
Films in their nature is an experience of the extroverted. We see another person suffer, we see their emotional state through actions and their facial gestures. Some films however, managed to use this extroverted medium to express introspection. 'And What Time is it there?' accomplished this perfectly. But in order to do this, the film can not be rushed. For the longer a shot can substain within a time frame but remain interesting, the longer the audience have to concentrate. In due time, the aduience have to actively think about the scene and they will somehow perform this introspection within themselves. If a film can do that to an audience, it is a masterpiece. Of course there are as many interpretations to this film as people say it is slow moving. But for me, it is a philosophical journey, where the changing of time is an indication of desires and wanting to escape. Since the protangonist can not go there, he decided to change his environment instead. But of course, we can also see this as an indication of the lack of progress in life, of wanting to turn back time and the drift into isolation and loneliness. But as we can see, this hope is trivial but its existence is necessary for one's own survival. So in an outsider's view, the actions may look irrational or pointless, but amongst the circular motions of repetition of fears and anger, it is these very action itself that gives life a purpose.
Tsai's unique style gives rise to another film about isolation in
urbanization. Hsiao-kang's father has just died, and he and his mother
hold together. He doesn't have much problem doing that, but his mother is
going insane with loneliness, so much so that she entirely imbues herself
her religious beliefs. Around this time, Hsaio-kang sells his personal
to a girl about to fly to Paris. Soon after this, Hsiao-kang becomes
obsessed with her (or is it the watch?) and decides to set all his watches
(he sells them on the street) to Paris time, and then all the clocks in
house, and then all the clocks he can find. The girl gets stranded in
having lost her plane ticket. The film moves slow and it has little
dialogue, as is Tsai's style, but it is incredibly beautiful in its
composition, editing, everything. The story is quite great, too. Tsai is a
wonderful humanist. The film builds up to a silent crescendo, where the
three main characters each endure cold acts of love and failed attempts at
communication. When the film closes, all three are asleep, two in Taipei
one in Paris, all three alone.
Okay, I should have ended it there, but I do have two problems with the film, go figure. First, Hsiao-kang's clock setting is highly amusing at first, but it does get very old after a while. The sequence that ends in the movie theater bathroom is gold, perfect, so Tsai should have just stopped there with that motif. The scene where he sneaks into a clock store and the scene where he resets the clock tower are superfluous. We got the point, and it should have been moving forward. Secondly, I think it's about time Tsai moved on. I love the three films of his I've seen, including The Hole and Vive L'Amour, but the style is the same in all three, as is the theme. Michelangelo Antonioni, who is obviously Tsai's main inspiration (though this particular film has a lot of references to the Truffaut film The 400 Blows, including a very funny cameo by Jean-Pierre Leaud), had a problem moving on from this material, as well, with everything from L'Avventura to Red Desert being very similar (although his style evolved more than Tsai's has), and even after that his films had comparable themes. As much as I like Tsai (and Antonioni), if his next film is just like this, I'm sure it will hurt my presently high opinion of him. 9/10.
This darkly humorous minimalist examination of loneliness and urban despair is a minor masterpiece. A withdrawn Taipei watch seller falls in love with one of his customers the day before she is set to fly off to a holiday in Paris. The film then follows both of their stories, connected by time: she knows no one in Paris and is miserable while he pines over her back in Tapei, sets every clock he sees to Paris time, and tries to cope with his mother's mental breakdown. The film's done in Tsai's usual manner: long static shots, no music, muted lighting and pursues the same themes as his earlier work but he's somehow able to not make it feel like old hat. "What Time is it There?" is a bit morbid maybe but very well done.
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