Friday, June 17, 2011

FI: What Time Is It There?

What Time Is It There? (Ni na bian ji dian)
Taiwan, 2001
Directed by Tsai Ming-Liang

I don't want to bury the lede: I found it difficult to get into What Time Is It There? One of the things you face if you watch a lot of movies from around the world is that your taste will, inevitably, not match up with certain styles, genres, and schools of cinema. For example, the particularly slow, static style found in much contemporary Asian cinema—especially, as is the case here, the Taiwanese Second New Wave—just doesn't work for me. I don't think that makes this a bad film, per se; I believe it mostly achieves the goals it sets out to achieve. But by the time the film was over, I just didn't care, though I feel that's likely just as much my fault as it is the film's.

What Time Is It There? is split into three (or, perhaps, 2.5) concurrently-told stories. Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) is a young street merchant who sells watches in Taipei. His father has recently passed away, leaving his grief-stricken mother (Lu Yi-Ching) depressed and waiting for her husband's inevitable reincarnation. Hsiao-Kang, meanwhile, meets Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi), who is headed to Paris for unclear reasons. She wishes to buy Hsiao-Kang's own watch, rather than any of the ones he is selling, because it can display two time zones at once. Their brief interaction triggers something in Hsiao-Kang, who becomes compelled to set every clock he finds to Paris time. The film then follows these three characters (with the main focus on Hsiao-Kang and Shiang-chyi) through several quiet, contemplative, lonely days, where strange coincidences and parallels seem to almost connect their disparate stories.

Tsai's film is very good looking. Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme creates painterly images and meaningful compositions, while Tsai keeps the camera set in static long takes reminiscent of Ozu. But the result is a film that is very slow-moving. There is minimal dialog, and very little of what you're meant to think is spelled out for you. The film is about wanting desperately to feel something despite the numbness of isolation and grief, about the connections (real and imagined) that tie us to the world and to each other. It's a film that challenges you to feel the emotions its characters are experiencing by watching the slow accretion of detail in its images. This requires a certain level of immersion into the film's world, and (unfortunately) it is a level I never managed to attain. If you're more patient than I am, perhaps you can do better?

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