What Time is it There?
English Title: What Time is it There?
Country of Origin: China
Studio: Arena films, Homegreen Films
Director: Tsai Ming-liang
Producer(s): Bruno Pesery
Cinematographer: Benoit Delhomme
Art Director: Timmy Yip
Editor: Chen Sheng-Chang
Runtime: 116 minutes
After his father dies suddenly, Hsiao-kang sells watches on a bridge near the central train station in Taipei. There he meets a young woman named Shiang Chyi who is about to leave for Paris. Thereafter, Hsiao-kang becomes obsessed with Paris, both by watching The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, 1959) and resetting every watch and clock he can find to Paris time. Meanwhile, Shiang Chyi has her own strange encounters, starting with a brief lesbian affair with another traveller of Chinese descent. Yet nothing is stranger than her encounter with Jean-Pierre Léaud, the star of Truffaut’s film, or in the end with Hsiao-kang’s father (his ghost?) as she is sleeping on a park bench.
What Time is it There? is both a film about haunting and a haunted film. To be sure, Tsai Ming-liang is not Hou Hsiao-hsien in multiple ways. Yet Tsai never even acknowledges any influence that Hou may have had on him. Instead he often speaks of the influence of avant-garde theatre, from which he emerged, and of other directors, most of all François Truffaut. In this respect, no film directed by Tsai is quite as literal as What Time is It There? To wit, this film is almost haunted by its literalness both as homage and as a stylistic exercise.
The film opens with Hsiao-kang’s father alone, calling out to his son. Thereafter the father dies, only to return mysteriously at the end in a Paris park as a ferris wheel slowly turns in the distance while Hsiao-kang’s love interest sleeps on a bench. In addition to the haunting of the father, however, the film is further haunted by longing for a faraway place. In conveying this, Tsai acknowledges his spiritual godfather: François Truffaut. To further emphasize this cinematic lineage, he has the actual Jean-Pierre Léaud, now an adult, also appear next to Hsiao-kang’s love interest. In an understatedly witty film with Tsai’s signature economy of dialogue, this is even wittier as homage, much like he will do next for King Hu in Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003).
Yet the inserted images from The 400 Blows drives home one other key point: as much as Tsai Ming-liang is inspired by the spirit of Truffaut, stylistically speaking, What Time is it There? is nothing like Truffaut. Instead, this film belies another haunting, one Tsai does not seem to acknowledge. To be a Malaysian-born director in Taiwan is challenging enough, but even more challenging is how much he has had to work under the shadow of Hou Hsiao-hsien. That Tsai now has the cachet he does on the international scene is a testament to how ingeniously Tsai has managed to etch his own place. Yet in What Time is it There? Tsai follows to the letter a peculiar tendency pioneered by Hou in recent Asian cinema: to couple the long take with a static camera. Even more astonishing, in this case Tsai does it literally in every single shot, excluding the inserted images from Truffaut. Despite an average shot length of over a minute, not once does the camera even move for the slightest reframing, or anything else for that matter.
Even Hou Hsiao-hsien was never that literal with a tendency he inadvertently popularized among Asian directors aspiring for festival success. By contrast, Tsai follows the literal letter of an unwritten cinematic ‘law’ first established by a father figure he otherwise has little in common with. He never does this again: ever since this film, Tsai has allowed at least some camera movements, even if often subdued and minimal in nature. He thus follows a pattern here seen in other directors also exploring the static long take such as Korea’s Hong Sang-soo. After finding how far one can go with this rare aesthetic tendency, they seemingly pull back and begin to explore other aesthetic territory. Perhaps in this way Tsai and others exorcize their own cinematic ghosts, much unlike the characters within What Time is it There? Either way, this film epitomizes the cinematic games and puzzles that are undeniably Tsai Ming-liang’s, and Tsai’s alone.
Author of this review: James Udden