What Time Is It There? opens to a long, unbroken static shot of a middle-aged man (Tien Miao) preparing the kitchen table for a meal, then calling for his son, Hsiao Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) to no avail, then biding time waiting for his family to sit down for dinner by smoking a cigarette, before walking to the rear terrace to move a sickly potted plant, passively staring out into the distance. The extended scene proves to be an introductory glimpse into a series of missed connections as the scene cuts to the image of Hsiao Kang transporting his father’s ashes to a columbarium in a taxicab – his acknowledgment of his father’s earlier summons arriving too late – the unreciprocated dialogue between father and son made acutely palpable by the elegantly covered mortal vessel that now separates them. One afternoon, an attractive young woman named Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi) stops by Hsiao Kang’s makeshift watch stand to look for a dual-time chronometer for her upcoming trip to Paris and, unable to find a suitable one, convinces the reluctant street vendor into selling his own. Overwhelmed by an inarticulable sense of loss and longing, Hsiao Kang’s grief manifests as an innocuous, unrequited obsession for the persistent customer, and vicariously attempts to immerse himself in her new environment by seeking out films about Paris and setting all of the clocks at his disposal to Paris time – unaware that Shiang-chyi’s melancholy and feelings of estrangement are equally overwhelming. Meanwhile, Hsiao Kang’s emotionally devastated mother (Lu Hsiao-Ling) continues to seek guidance from a traditional priest in an attempt to connect with her late husband, following him as he casts a spell on yin-yang water at her husband’s memorial altar so that he may drink from it after he is resurrected. In an understatedly amusing, yet poignant episode, she later returns to the altar and additionally places a serving of roast duck alongside the yin-yang water as a further inducement for him to return home. But despite the seemingly fated, intersecting lives of three lonely and desperate people, the remedy for their emotional void seems indefinably out of reach.
Tsai Ming-Liang creates a sublime, gently humorous, and affectionate examination of transience, connection, and coincidence in What Time Is It There?. Using recurrent, allusive, and dualistic imagery that figuratively link the disconnected lives of Hsiao Kang, his mother, and Shiang-chyi, Tsai visually unites their grief and longing into a universal existential portrait of contemporary alienation: the family’s idiosyncratic care and treatment for the dying house plant; Hsiao Kang’s viewing of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows on a sleepless evening that is later paralleled with Shiang-chyi’s encounter with Jean-Pierre Leaud at a Paris cemetery; the long take of cars speeding past Hsiao Kang on the freeway that cuts into a shot of hurried commuters rushing past Shiang-chyi on a motorized walkway; the waterwheel at a Taipei mall that is echoed in the final shot of the film. Note the amusing homage to a similarly themed film on chance and connection, Kryzsztof Kieslowski’s Red, as Hsiao Kang listens to a radio broadcast urging driver caution for an errant dog loose on the streets that further reinforces the commonality of life experience between Paris and Taipei. Through comedic, yet achingly bittersweet episodes of near encounters, duality, and coincidence, What Time is it There? transcends the bounds of geographical, cultural, and personal isolation to map the elusive metaphysical plane of human interconnectedness.
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