WHAT TIME IS IT THERE?

  (Ni Neibian Jidian)

Directed by Tsai Ming-liang. 2001.


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"I like to put people in situations where they do not have love, because I want to know how much love we need, and what kind of relationships we want" - Tsai Ming-liang


After the death of her husband (Mio Tien), wife (Lu Yi-Ching) and son (Hsiao Kang) are attached to his spirit. Kang collects bottles and plastic bags to use as urine depositories since he is afraid that if he goes to the bathroom, he will bump into his father's spirit. Yi-Ching believes that her husband has returned as a cockroach. Believing that their overgrown pet white carp has consumed the cockroach, she talks to the fish as if it were her husband. She lights incense, leaves a cup of water for his spirit to drink and cooks a meal for him. Attachments form the basis of Tsai Ming-liang's What Time Is It There?, a beautiful meditation on loneliness, interconnectedness, and the illusion of time that is filled with both sadness and macabre humour. Tsai's film is dedicated to the memory of his father who passed away in 1992 and he says that the making of the film helped him to complete their relationship. 

After his father's death, Kang sells watches on the street for a living but is reluctant to sell his wristwatch to a young woman (Chen Shiang-Chyi) because of its connection to his father. She wants the watch because she is leaving the next day for Paris and the watch shows dual-time. Kang thinks the watch will bring bad luck but reluctantly agrees to sell it to her. After she leaves, Kang underscores his connection to the watch and the woman he sold it to by attempting to set all Taipei clocks to Paris time. When he changes his mother's wall clock, she interprets this as a sign that the spirit of her dead husband wants to return. Believing that her husband does not like the light, she hangs covers over all of the windows, shuts off the electricity, and tapes any cracks where light can enter, causing Kang to walk out in a rage.

Using his customary long static takes in which the camera barely moves for long stretches of time, much of the action takes place indoors: in restaurants and lonely hotel rooms in Paris and in the father's house in Taipei. Like most Ming-liang films, the characters do not communicate with each other emotionally although each has an overwhelming need for connection. Shiang-Chyi's visit to Paris becomes an ode to loneliness and detachment. She trudges around Paris ostensibly seeing the tourist sights but we only see her in the Metro, her second class hotel, and lonely restaurants. When she makes eye contact with another Asian man in a subway station, it is as if she desperately needs to hold onto to something familiar. 

All three characters use sex as a means to overcome their isolation but it is mechanical and no different than other mundane activities. Shiang-Chyi meets a woman from Hong Kong at a restaurant and sleeps with her but her overtures for sex are rejected, Kang picks up a prostitute but is robbed, and his mother masturbates beneath a picture of her husband. Much of the thematic elements of the film have to do with time and synchronicity. While Kang is watching The 400 Blows at home, Shaing-Chyi encounters an adult Jean-Pierre Leaud sitting on a park bench. The setting of the clocks to Paris time seems to induce his father's spirit to go to Paris where he reappears in a stunning climax at the Ferris wheel by the Tuileries. Tsai has said that What Time Is It There? is a Buddhist film and it appears to reflect that tradition, showing that attachment leads to suffering and that life and death, space and time, proximity and distance are nothing more than giant cosmic illusions.

Howard Schumann
 
 
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