A mood of elegiac gloom, tinged with warped, deapan humor, suffuses Tsai Ming-liang’s “What Time Is It There?” The French-Taiwanese picture is a study in loneliness, so studied and unhurried in presentation that to some it will seem affected and arch. (The writer-director is toying with time, as the title suggests, and he doesn’t mind taking up quite a bit of it in the process.) Nonetheless it has moments of quiet power and others of almost slapstick charm, and it’s so elegantly fashioned that it’s difficult to take one’s eyes from the screen. The result is somewhat precious and pretentious, but also fascinating.
The focus of the picture is Hsio-kang (Lee Kang-sheng), a dour young man who sells watches on the street and still lives with his family; as the film opens, his father dies and he presides over his cremation. While his widowed mother goes through religious rituals and watches for her late husband’s reincarnation, desperately trying to reconnect with the dead man (at one point amusingly suggesting that a cockroach her son catches might in fact be her spouse, and then opining that the large-mouthed fish to whom the boy feeds the insect could be the old man), Hsio-kang becomes obsessed with a girl, Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi) to whom he sells his own watch: she persuades him to do so despite his misgivings because it keeps time in dual zones, and she’s about to go on a trip to Paris. She leaves, but the fellow thinks about her ceaselessly, and intently changes all the clocks he can find to conform to the time in France. (His habit results in some amusing sequences, including one in which he alters the time on a huge building clock almost like a modern Harold Lloyd, and another, suffused with weird humor, in which he takes a clock he’s pilfered into a movie theatre, only to have it stolen in turn by an odd, chubby fellow who’s been stalking him). Meanwhile we cut periodically to Paris, where Shiang- chyi is having a miserable time. The intangible, mysterious connection between the two young people is wittily conveyed in an episode in which Hsio-kang watches the young Jean-Pierre Léaud on video in an extended scene from Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” while the girl simultaneously bumps into the actor forty years older in a Parisian cemetery. (She’s trying to make a phone call, presumably to Hsio-kang, though that’s never specified.) The film culminates in a sequence in which all three of the leads engage simultaneously in sexual encounters, though in unsatisfying ways (one of which in particular may seem quite unpleasant to some viewers, as also could a couple of scenes in which Hsio-kang relieves himself during the night). A coda involving the dead father brings matters full circle, indicating that the overlap in time may extend far beyond the plane inhabited by the living. There’s a touch of magic to the suggestion that a connection will persist between Shiang-chyi and the family of which she’s, as yet, barely conscious.
“What Time Is It There?” never spells out its ideas, and as an argument it certainly falls short. But it has the qualities of a good poem or a vivid dream–it’s enigmatic, but often beautiful in a shimmering, deceptively simple way. The more adventurous should certainly give it a try.
One final point. Perhaps a voluntary halt should be put on references–both direct and indirect– to Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” in modern films. (Just in recent weeks, “The Fluffer” mirrored its final shot, too.) The 1959 classic of the French New Wave is unquestionably a seminal work, but allusions to it have become so familiar that they now seem little more than a convenient narrative crutch, something that saves a filmmaker from the need to clarify his themes in a more imaginative way. That’s true even of someone as stimulating as Ming-liang Tsai.