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What Time Is It There? (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on April 18, 2013

Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng) has recently lost his father (Miao Tien).  His mother (Lu Yi-ching) fixates on the possibility of reincarnation, and takes absurd steps to invite the spirit back into the home.  Hsiao-kang sells watches on a highway overpass.  Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi) wants a dual-time watch for her upcoming trip to Paris, but the only one that interests her is the one on Hsaio-kang’s wrist.  He reluctantly sells it to her.  As the days go by, Hsiao-kang becomes more and more obsessed with changing Taiwan’s clocks and watches to Paris time, a superstitious attempt to connect with this woman he barely knows.  Hsiao-kang is lonely, his mother is lonely, and Shiang-chyi is lonely.

This might be Tsai’s most eloquent and poetic study of loneliness and the deep yearning for true connection.  Scenes are mirrored between Taipei and Paris with lyrical synchronicity, although Tsai has the patience to not always stick them back-to-back.  The most obvious instance of same-time synchronicity is when each of the three principals has a sexual encounter, none of them with the person they wish they were having it with.  The most obvious instance of delayed synchronicity is when Hsiao-kang watches The 400 Blows (Tsai’s professed favorite film) and several scenes later, Shiang-chyi meets its star, Jean-Pierre Léaud.  Connections are made across thousands of miles, but the characters cannot benefit from them.

Figures are often viewed in isolation, with large segments of wall, door frames or other objects narrowing the frame in which they exist.  At other times they are plunged into dark spaces with vague boundaries.  As usual, Tsai strips the dialogue down.  The longest, most interactive conversation is between Hsiao-kang and Shiang-chyi, negotiating for the watch.  Contrast this with Hsiao-kang’s interactions with his mother: they speak at each other, not with each other.  Rarely does one say anything in direct response to the other.  Questions are asked without being answered.  Admonishments are given but ignored.

It is a profoundly sad portrait of the lack of connection between people, but it is also profoundly funny.  Tsai’s deadpan humor is up there with Tati, Keaton, and Kaurismaki.  The biggest laugh-out-loud moment for me is a scene between Hsiao-kang and his mother.  They’re sitting at the table, eating a midnight dinner (because she has mistaken his clock manipulations as a sign from the father).  She sets a place for the father, frequently pausing in her own meal to pile more food in his bowl.  She gives a bunch of pills to her son and warns him not to waste them.  He contemplates it for a moment, then casually places the pills by his father’s bowl.  She looks annoyed, but what can she do?

It probably doesn’t sound funny written out like that, but you had to be there.  There are loads of amusing moments, balancing the solemn examination of grief and alienation with a little levity about the absurdity of human behavior.  And he throws in a little mystery at the end as well, making the viewer question what he is seeing.  In the final shot, we see a figure from this mysterious encounter recede into the distance, towards a giant ferris wheel… spinning counter-clockwise.  Rating: Masterpiece (96)


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