Is it possible for a film to be 100% detour but still end up at its destination on time? Regardless of its forays into clock changing, coffee vomiting and piss bagging, Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time Is It There? begins and ends with a patriarch (Miao Tien). In the first shot, the father shouts authoritatively to his watch salesman son, Hsaio-kang (Lee Kang-sheng), as he smokes and wanders restlessly through the domestic space they also share with the unnamed wife/mother figure (Lu Yi-ching). In the last, he stands alone—diminished by the setting but imposing nonetheless—in front of the Roue de Paris.

Between those two shots, the father dies. We don’t see it happen, just the religious rituals in death’s aftermath. Hsaio-kang goes through the motions (first bow, second bow, third bow) but doesn’t take them too seriously, while his mother clings to the officiating monk’s every word and develops her own set of rituals as she follows the wandering spirit of her husband (from a yin-yang water bowl to a seat at the dinner table to the body of a fish, and so on). In two key scenes, the father’s poster-sized picture looms: his black-and-white face stares blankly from the frame’s edges as his wife masturbates with a straw basket and as his son slowly prepares to lie on his back and bask in malaise after a night spent in his car.

From the way things gradually go off the rails, it’s implied that the father’s living presence once allowed the household to cohere. But the father’s now-dead presence, invisible until the final scenes, actually intensifies this cohering effect. A kind of simultaneity starts to manifest itself among his son, his widow and a third character, Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi), a woman with such specific taste in dual-time watches that she buys hers directly from Hsiao-kang’s wrist like a bargaining pro even after Hsiao-kang informs her that he’s in mourning. “I’m a Christian,” she insists, taking Hsiao-kang’s business card and calling him from a payphone in the hours following their initial meeting. Watch successfully won, she leaves on a trip to Paris for a vacation whose overall isolation and sadness seems to vibrate on the same tenor as Hsiao-kang and the mother.

The characters’ shared experience is part magic, part accident. Hsiao-kang obsessively sets every clock within striking distance to Paris time as part of a fixation with Shiang-chyi, who has told him about her travel plans. But when he surreptitiously changes the family’s kitchen clock, his mom gets the impression—never corrected by Hsiao-kang —that her dead husband has adjusted the time to his own idiosyncratic schedule and so she starts to live, unwittingly, on Parisian hours. This is one source of the film’s title: it’s hard to decipher the “actual” time when everyone in a household is living according to the time of another place (or person). The effect escalates when, in the film’s final quarter, the mother covers all the windows in the home with newspaper, preventing even our own efforts to determine the time of day.

Crucially, the title is also a question unasked. Our three main characters resonate, rather than communicate, with one another, sharing a kind of hyper-local zeitgeist that still manages to span some 6,000 miles. In other words, the three are on almost exactly the same page but will never know it. Tsai gives this reality a distinctly cinematic flavor by using cuts to imply relationships of affect and reality (cause-affect relationships, perhaps!) between different parts of Taipei, as well as between Taipei and Paris. One such cut takes us from a repair room full of clocks at a train station, where Hsiao-kang has snuck, to a phone booth where Shiang-chyi must endure the screaming of a man in an adjacent booth. Just before the cut, we see a supervisor enter the repair room and Hsiao-kang hide behind some equipment. There is no way out for him, he will be caught and—on cut—a great deal of yelling ensues, as if to chastise Hsiao-kang for breaking and entering. It’s just that this yelling is technically happening on a Paris street, not underground in Taipei.

Implied in this particular detour (“detour” understood in two ways for What Time Is It There?: as a departure from strictly narrative paths in favor of affective ones and as the circuitous nature of these affective routes) is the idea that technology—in 2001, right on the cusp of widespread Internet—is responsible not for connection but for more absurd forms of disconnection. One can call to ask what time it is in another time zone and even find the right time-telling device for inhabiting two different time zones at once, but such actions merely amplify modern-day alienation by acting as a reminder of distance while closeness of spirit remains obscure to all but us viewers.

A similar set of concerns appears around the father, whom the film associates with such tried-and-true technologies as cigarettes, still photographs and a Ferris wheel. These devices keep him at an old-fashioned distance, including for us: we see him better and more often than the film’s characters do but cannot fathom his chaos- and connection-inducing existence.

In the accompanying director’s notes for What Time Is It There?, dedicated to Tsai’s and Lee’s respective fathers, Tsai describes how his father passed away from cancer in 1992, before the release of his first film. Lee’s father died in 1997. Using Lee’s nickname and character name, Hsiao-kang , Tsai writes, “The following year [1998], on a flight to a film festival, Hsiao-kang slept on the plane; the melancholy on his face made me even sadder.”

With this in mind, we see even more clearly that the film is a melancholy meditation on death and the unfathomable. An additional description in the director’s notes, focusing on Tsai’s relationship with the actor who plays the father, clarifies and heightens matters: “Miao Tien is irreplaceable as the father…. He is like a mountain; he looks solitary from afar, but one loses oneself upon moving closer.” The description highlights Tsai’s way of seeing as much as it does the father’s existence: the closer the director and his characters attempt to get, the less they see. No communication takes place. The question of solitude remains, for the moment, unresolved.

Twenty years later, full-throttle into the internet age, connectivity problems continue. It’s a little too obvious a conclusion to say that, if we want to better understand our newly virtualized and isolated reality, we should take a closer look at Tsai’s oeuvre, but it’s certainly tempting to preach a return to Tsai and his fellow auteurs d’isolement (at a glance, figures like Michelangelo Antonioni, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Chantal Akerman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Jafar Panahi, Yorgos Lanthimos) for some guidance through contemporary life.

But, looking past its surface isolations, we can see something more complicated and hopeful in What Time Is It There?, a continuation of relationships that reformulates the cinematic along lines of kinship and multimodality. First, there’s the ongoing relationship between Tsai and Lee, whose most recent collaboration, Days, was in competition at the Berlin Film Festival just last year. Lee has, in fact, appeared in every Tsai feature, and Tsai has spoken about the way that the passage of time has turned him into the father figure for Lee, replacing Miao Tien, who passed away in 2005. This is a re-envisioned kind of dad, one whose self-described “destiny” is to capture on camera the everyday behaviors of his adopted son rather than control or evade them.

The second element of What Time Is It There? that resonates with us powerfully from the vantage point of 2021 is its DVD aesthetic. This stands in sharp contrast to those turn-of-the-century critics who rejected home media, thinking that true cinephiles go only to the movie theater, and framed the digital transfer of films as a lessening of their power.

Watching the film on DVD, still the only medium on which it remains readily available, it’s hard to shake the idea that movies shot on celluloid from this era were actually intended for DVD, which communicates their graininess through an effectively murky digital haze. High-speed streaming and Blu-ray formats, in all their brightening pixilation, clean things up, while Digital Video Disc remains dirty, and rapturously so for films that capture cracked physicality so unflinchingly.

What Time Is It There? is fully aware that this is the case. Hsiao-kang pays little attention to the big screen when he enters a cinema (it’s little more than a hiding place for changing yet another clock) but watches his DVD copy of The 400 Blows with undivided attention. The only camera movements in Tsai’s film play out in scenes from Truffaut’s film, a handful of these scenes taking up the entire screen for our full appreciation, bringing together its lonely, fluid-gulping protagonists across a gap of 42 years and those same 6,000 miles.

Tsai has allowed his own filmmaking, too, to open up beyond cinema spaces. Many of his recent works—including Face (2009), the first film to be acquired for the Louvre’s collection—have appeared in art galleries and museums. Regarding the 2015 installation version of 2013’s Stray Dogs, Tsai expressed, “I believe that the museum version of Stray Dogs is a liberation of film…. Any single shot, no matter in 3 minutes, 10 minutes or even half hour, can be seen as a film in itself.”

In retrospect, What Time Is It There? takes Tsai one step closer to this liberation. Each of its 105 shots, minus the first and last, constitutes a cine-detour that both hints at the deepening relationship between Tsai and Lee and encourages an alternative kind of attention from viewers. It asks that we reframe cinematic isolation as a temporary phenomenon, each shot its own film and each film an opportunity to develop a kind of seeing that, in harmony with stasis and duration, needs not stand still.

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