What Time Is It There?

(Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan, 2001)


Tsai Ming-liang is a director who goes his own way. What Time Is It There? baffled many at its Cannes premiere in 2001, but has gradually gathered a cult following around the world – a typical career-path for his films.

This one is a story of big-city dislocation, alienation and longing that owes much to Michelangelo Antonioni – again, rather like some previous works of his, such as Vive l’amour (1994) and his masterpiece, The River (1997). But What Time Is It There? is quietly energised by Tsai’s nutty sense of humour (his films get funnier as he gets older) and his evolving interest in spirituality.

A Taiwanese woman (Chen Shiang-chyi) travels to Paris, where she has a terrible time; a lonely man (Lee Kang-sheng) who sold her a watch back in Taipei pines, wanders, and watches French movies. The two strands are brought together by Tsai in surreal, haunting moments, such as the presence of New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud both on the man’s TV screen and on a bench in a Parisian cemetery, offering his phone number to the woman.

For all the humour and the grace, there is something hard and merciless about this film; his sensibility is closer than ever to a kind of Cinema of Cruelty. Yet this sensibility is attuned to the changing times, to the mutations of our global culture.

We live in a time when utopianism has attached itself to a dream of ‘one world’ – an impulse I understand after dry years of academic identity-politics which often seemed to separate peoples (and genders and value systems) into their fixed, smug differences more than they forged alliances or cross-cultural understandings. But for me, some of the wisest, most moving and provocative films of recent times have been those that insist – even to the point of coldness, fatalism and misanthropic despair – on the irreducible, fundamental differences between cultures, nations, levels and types of experience.

In Michael Haneke’s best film, Code Unknown (2000), for instance, every problem or crisis spins around missing translations: from the argument with a homeless, immigrant refugee on the street to the ability to gain access to a Paris apartment, the ‘code’ is unknown or lost. More mystically and less evidently materialistically (but why make that distinction?), What Time is It There? is profoundly about uncommunicating vessels (to twist a Surrealist slogan): Paris and Taiwan, a man and a woman, the living and the dead, unsynchronised time zones, incompatible languages, unreciprocal desires … There is a moment – it comes around in cycles – when we need such cruel reminders of the realities that disturb any premature fantasies of oneness.

Every great auteur has his or her stylistic trademarks. Jean-Luc Godard has his bold, jagged editing of sounds and images. Hou Hsaio-hsien favours long, hypnotic, mobile camera takes. Philippe Garrel returns ceaselessly to images of beds, doors, windows, people walking.

For Tsai, no matter which city he films in, the same motifs pop up: water, waiting, eating, furtive sexual encounters. He creates a form of cinematic poetry which could enliven Australian arthouse cinemas – if only someone would let us see it there.

MORE Tsai: Journey to the West, Stray Dogs, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone

© Adrian Martin July 2002

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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