Credit: Wellspring
by Ryan Swen Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

What Time is It There? — Tsai Ming-liang

January 10, 2022

Calling Tsai Ming-liang’s body of work interconnected doesn’t begin to cover the throughlines that have developed over the span of more than three decades. One of the most teleological of oeuvres, it isn’t just a matter of recapitulating his recurring interests — a decaying Taipei, cruising, water, infrequent but definite touches of the surreal, and above all the form of Lee Kang-sheng — but also of examining how each building block develops upon these motifs, whether in the creeping stasis commonly associated with his work or in giant leaps.

By dint of Lee’s presence — along with numerous, less recognized repertory players like Yang Kuei-mei, Chen Shiang-chyi, Miao Tien, and Lu Yi-ching — as first Hsiao-kang, then just Kang, and the recurring anchors in lower-class Taipei living and family, Tsai’s films already carry the unmistakable suggestion of a narrative and temporal continuity that rises above the particulars of any one film. But What Time Is It There? (2001), which more-or-less constituted his international breakthrough, is an especially concentrated example, coming as it does at the fulcrum of Tsai’s narrative feature career before his brief retirement after Stray Dogs (2013).

Marking the halfway point, along with the entirely dissimilar Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), it also, at least retroactively, literalizes this heretofore latent connection: it is the first in a loose trilogy, along with the short The Skywalk Is Gone (2002) and The Wayward Cloud (2005), following the connection between Lee and Chen’s characters as their interactions become ever more desperate and unnerving. This triptych, incidentally, is broken up by Goodbye, Dragon Inn, the one feature that does not center Lee and which may very well not have him playing Hsiao-kang — though the Fuhe Grand Theater does actually appear in this film briefly in a much less dilapidated form. While this explicit connection might lead one to expect an accompanying compatibility of tones, this isn’t the case: The Skywalk Is Gone — referring to the bridge over Taipei roads where Lee and Chen first meet — occupies something close to his usual durational cinema style, while The Wayward Cloud collides its seedy porn filmmaking milieu with gonzo bathroom-themed musical numbers.

And What Time Is It There? finds itself, fascinatingly, in a realm that Tsai has only rarely dived into. Typically, his films (aside from the aforementioned Goodbye, Dragon Inn) center upon Lee and one other person, whether it be Yang in The Hole (1998), Anong Houngheuangsy in Days (2021), or Lu in Stray Dogs (2013). But here, Tsai fragments his approach further, effectively creating a triangular focus between Lee, Chen, and Lu (who, as in most of her Tsai appearances, plays Lee’s mother and Miao’s wife). The reasons for this arrive with an atypical, piercing clarity: after an opening scene with Miao alone in the family apartment so familiar from past Tsai films, the next shot finds Lee riding in a car with his father’s urn.

From there, What Time Is It There? both does and doesn’t adhere to the cycles of grief that Lee and Lu go through. Even without factoring in the substantial element of Chen’s storyline — wherein she leaves for a lonely, meandering trip in Paris after she buys Lee’s watch, which he says will bring her bad luck — there are few of the tears and mourning expected of bereavement. Instead, in keeping with the inexplicable, all-consuming longings so central to Tsai’s oeuvre, Lee and Lu become obsessed, with Chen’s rootlessness as a significant, often mysterious counterweight. Lu feverishly works to ensure that Miao’s reincarnation and/or spirit will remain in the apartment, constantly cooking food at odd hours and putting up sheets to block the sunlight with a singular determination not often found in Tsai’s films. In between hawking watches, Lee becomes entranced with setting the time on practically every clock he sees to Parisian time, seven hours behind, whether it be the digital readout in his car or the clock face on a tall city building, along with a fixation on Jean-Pierre Léaud in The 400 Blows.

Both manias come implicitly from not only grief, but from an overfamiliarity with their environments, manifesting itself in a desire to control or reshape these Taipei surroundings. While Lu’s efforts register as tragic and pathetic — epitomized in a startlingly confrontational scene where Lee attempts to stop her from sealing the walls with duct tape — and Lee’s are surreal and comedic, Chen’s scenes come to embody both, in the manner that tourists in a strange land can often be. There is something charged about how Chen stands still on a moving walkway as Parisians rush past her, or the exchange of glances that she has with a Chinese man on a separate subway platform from her. These gestures remain unfulfilled, as do most of her moments, most of all the glorious appearance of Léaud himself in a cemetery, as he slyly gives her his phone number.

All these desires culminate in a trinity of erotic encounters that Tsai crosscuts between, and it is here that questions of time — so inherent to slow cinema — come to the fore. All of these moments take place at night, but this would rule out the possibility of Chen’s encounter with a Hong Kong woman in bed — the sole instance of overt female queerness in a filmography intrinsically linked to male homosexuality — taking place at the same time as Lee’s tryst with a prostitute and Lu’s solo — or possibly spiritually assisted — sensual release. What Time Is It There?’s power is such that the connection between the three scenes resonates on both a narrative level (all three being emotional, if not all sexual climaxes) and on a more mystical one. The ending, where Miao makes his first of several ghostly appearances in Tsai’s films, implies that the already freighted watch carried much more than an omen to Paris. But Tsai’s cinema is so tactile, so immediately present that whether the superstitions of one religion or another scarcely seems to matter. Instead, power is found in conviction, in steadfast belief, and the focus of each moment yields endless amounts of care and desire, where grief is transformed into an entire way of viewing the quotidian and the unsteadiness of travel reverberates across the world.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.