What Time Is It There (2001) is a tale of loneliness, alienation, and attempts at meaningful connections. In Taiwan, a street vendor is trying to come to terms with the recent loss of his father when a girl, who is going on vacation to Paris, insists to buy the watch he is wearing. His grief-stricken mother turns to religion and traditional beliefs to connect with the spirit of his late husband, but the boy finds solace in the memory of the girl. Trying to remain connected, he obsessively resets every clocks he can get his hands on to the time in Paris. Meanwhile, the girl is alone and lost in translation in Paris.
Tsai Ming Liang’s cinematic style is interesting and captivating, demanding recognition from the viewers. You would inevitably divert your attention from the story to admire the beautiful composition of the gorgeously-lit frames. The film consists mainly of static medium shots set in deep focus. Normally, in a lesser film, they would be followed by gratuitously forced long takes, a pitfall the director is mature enough to avoid.
Mise-en-scene for each shot is well thought out. Character would dynamically roam about from left to right, up and down, and front to back. When the character stays put, there is usually enough interesting thing to see aside from the character. Tsai Ming Liang also creatively uses background and foreground, particularly to contrast his lonely characters to the busy and lively background that is the rest of this world. Other noteworthy aspects are his use of repetitive shots to inform the progression – or the lack of progression – of his characters over time.
The film is decidedly a comedy in the beginning; despite the grim subject of the death of the father, it is delivered in a light and playful tone. However, the story takes a more somber turn as it progresses: the son’s obsession of changing the clock goes from a simple mindless pastime to an elaborate project, the mother’s effort of connecting with her late husband becomes fervently intense, and the lonely damsel in Paris drowns more and more in her feeling of alienation. Soon, it feels that it is no longer appropriate to laugh at them–the film gets darker and darker, culminating in sexual ventures which may have been fueled from their desperate need for human connection.
In Tsai Ming Liang’s universe, characters and events seem to be linked and related in a mysterious way. The boy tries to connect with the girl by watching a classic French movie, 400 Blows, while we find that in Paris, the girl meets a stranger whose identity turns out to be Jean-Pierre Léaud, the lead actor of 400 Blows. A misunderstanding caused by the reset house clock has led the mother to believe that his husband’s spirit is now living in Paris time. Later, we find a man who looks very similar to the father having a leisure walk in Paris. The universe works in a mysterious way, interconnected in time and space in a way that we may not have expected or desired.
As beautiful and poignant this film is, by the end of the film, I left wishing the director had been less cold and detached from his characters. I find that I couldn’t place enough empathy for these people and I ended up enjoying the appearance of the fourth character the most, the well-fed and well-loved fish that exudes more joy and happiness than others in the film.
Tsai Ming Liang, a Chinese born in Malaysia, migrated in his early twenties to Taiwan and has worked his way to become one of the prominent Second New Wave directors in Taiwanese Cinema. Many of his works have received accolades and recognitions in film festivals circuits and from film critics, including What Time Is It There (Ni Nia Bian Ji Dian).