CANNES 2001 REVIEW: Time and Tsai; The Clock Strikes Ming-liang
by Mark Peranson
(indieWIRE/05.21.01) -- When a director of an art film puts the word "time" in the title of his film, an audience member damn well better know what he or she is in for: Time passing, and passing slowly. When that director is Tsai Ming-liang, whose impressive body of work to date can generously be considered a meticulous, slowly accumulating malaise of gut-wrenching, psychologically blocked despair, the prospects are downright tantalizing.
"What Time Is It There?" is instantly recognizable as a Tsai Ming-liang film. From the first six-minute or so shot and onwards, Taipei is again painted as a city of alienated reticence, where the main emotion is melancholy, and the most common manner of expression takes the form of wordless perversion. Mechanically reworking his pet obsessions -- yes, including his all-time favorite symbol, water (look out for his 1997 film "The River" this summer) -- and transferring half of them to Paris, where cultural differences are subtle yet constant, Tsai creates a precise, minimalist work that is more a transitional film than a departure.
Unsurprisingly, "What Time Is It There?" finds the mystical reappearance of a number of the same actors in Tsai's mini-reparatory company. Lee Kang-sheng, the director's surrogate and muse -- his own Jean-Pierre Leaud -- plays Hsiao-kang, a watch salesman who sells his ware on the streets of Taipei. A few days after his father's death, he is approached by Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi), who is heading off to Paris and is looking for a watch that can keep track of the time in both zones. After much convincing, Hsiao-kang sells Shiang-chyi his own watch. Meanwhile, Hsiao-kang's disconsolate mother (Lu Yi-ching) becomes obsessed with the idea that her husband may be reincarnated, perhaps in a cockroach, perhaps in a fish named Fatty.
As Hsiao-kang copes with his father's death and his mother's growing neurotic behavior, his survival tactics take the form of a litany of mundane behaviors (sleeping, drinking, pissing) and a retreat into silence -- if, indeed, any Tsai characters can be considered to do so. He also retains the memory of his meeting with Shiang-chyi, and rents "The 400 Blows" (Tsai's all-time favorite film) to get a sense of what life in Paris is like, and mysteriously begins to change the clocks in Taipei to Paris time.
As a tourist abroad who doesn't speak the language, Shiang-chyi experiences severe dislocation of another kind. She also runs into, of all people, the one and only Jean-Pierre Leaud. And once Hsiao-kang has changed the main clock in his family's apartment, his mother comes to think it is a message from her dead husband, shuts off all light, and begins to live according to the wall clock's time. (That's not the nuttiest thing she does, trust me.)
Time is in the title, and time passing (as it relates to death) is the idea Tsai is exploring, but the true formal pleasure of Tsai's film is in the director's exacting use of space; in particular, with which he arranges his actors onscreen spatially. Truly, a rigorous scene-by-scene analysis of the placement of the characters within the frame is encouraged, and, I think at least, yields some additional meaning into the goings on. To be somewhat specific: east and west, left and right, past and present, France and Taipei -- each character is oftentimes frozen on the side representing their psychological mindset. As each character searches for companionship, they end up in the center of the frame, suggesting a space where all of these opposites can meet. It's not shocking to discover that there's no happy ending on the horizon.
What has most definitely changed, and not necessarily for the better, is Tsai's visual look. In his other films -- the musical sequences of "The Hole," Tsai's 1988 Cannes competition entry, a blaring exception -- Tsai's Taipei is a forgivably cruddy innerzone. In "What Time Is It Over There?" new French cinematographer Benoit "Benetton" Delhomme (veteran of Tran Ahn Hung's films) gives each shot a reflective gloss. In Taipei, something seems lost, for the worst. Perhaps this would have worked alone in the Paris scenes, where the city's candy-colored romanticism is harshly undercut by Shaing-chyi's harsh, yet recognizable experiences as a tourist who is confronted with language barriers. (As Tony Rayns suggests, think of Tsai's Paris as Alphaville.) Be it that all tourists would be hit on in a cemetery by Jean-Pierre Leaud.
The off-beat run-in with Leaud -- his only flesh-and-blood appearance -- is typical of the drollness with which Tsai approaches most of the action, only ratcheting up the emotion in the film's conclusion -- a cross-cutting sequence of released sexual frustration on the part of all three characters. At this point, the film slightly derails; though, as always, Tsai's absurdist touch shines through in one supremely perverse sequence. Even earlier, I was too often hit with a feeling of been-there, done-that tiredness.
For all of its stylistic virtuosity, "What Time Is It There?" fails to hit home in an emotional way. When Shiang-chyi is left crying, in a long take in close-up in a Parisian park, bordering a lake, after a doomed liaison, a Tsai fan can't help but recall the heart wrenching, identical scene that caps the director's masterpiece "Vive L'Amour." He's got a worldview, and, along with water, fire does put in a few appearances, but Tsai had better watch out -- the old well is poised to run dry.
[Mark Peranson is the editor of Cinema Scope.]