What Time Is It There?

When I was in Hong Kong in 1998, I got to sit down with Tsai Ming-Liang and, through an interpreter, talk with him about film. I mentioned my own first film and how it was divided into two stories in two different cities. Whaddaya know - the film he made three years later, What Time Is It There?, follows two strangers in separate parts of the globe. I'm not insinuating anything, but hey, Ming-Liang, I didn't see any "Thanks to Mark Kines for the inspiration" in the end credits!

Nevertheless, I've always envied Tsai because although his films move as slow as molasses and his characters barely speak, after an hour and a half I wind up emotionally drained from the experience. This isn't uncommon amongst the best of Taiwanese cinema (see the work of Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien), but unlike most of his contemporaries, Tsai doesn't shy away from his characters' sexual kinks: in fact he dives right in, often to startling effect.

Once again cast as Tsai's alter ego "Hsiao-Kang" is Lee Kang-Sheng, the star of all of Tsai's films. He plays a lonely watch seller on the streets of Taipei who has to deal with a hysterical mother after the death of his father. After a chance encounter with a pretty young woman (Chen Shiang-Chyi) who insists on buying his father's watch from him before she leaves for Paris, Hsiao-Kang becomes obsessed with the time difference between Paris and Taipei, and starts setting every clock he comes across to Paris time. This suggests that he has fallen in love with the young woman, though it's never made explicit and they never meet again. Meanwhile, we follow the young woman through the streets of a very cold and unwelcoming Paris, never fully aware of why she decided to go there, though we can guess she was suckered in by its promise of romance.

A little wittier than Tsai Ming-Liang's earlier films, What Time Is It There? still achieves a vague profundity, as well as the usual aching sadness and quiet desperation found in his other work. It doesn't top Vive L'Amour, but it's a good introduction to his films (and I'm guessing most of you out there still need one).