When someone describes a film as minimalistic, he usually refers to the aesthetic quality, a sparsity of construction and mise-en-scène that leaves a chill in the air. What so many, including myself, fail to adequately convey is that minimalist film, when done well, tends to be richer, more painterly and more evocative than more complicated work. Perhaps it's because the removal of classical elements of mise-en-scène take away the intellectualism of the cinema. Rather than give us symbols to toil over, directors pull back and leave emotions to fill the gap. Thus, it's harder to talk about these movies, because even when shots are deliberately arranged and edited and you see what the director is saying, you cannot fully discuss the picture without investing in it emotionally. For those who believe criticism should strive for objective verisimilitude, meaningful criticism of such works is impossible. It's easy to talk about someone's creative and emotional vision when it comes caged in unlockable elements. It's much harder when you have to expose yourself to talk about someone else's bared chest.
From a conceptual standpoint, Tsai Ming-liang's films suggest minimalism taken to an extreme. Not only is he a master of the long, static take, he reuses the same actors in essentially the same roles. Lee Kang-sheng plays the protagonist in all of Tsai's films, and he even carries the same character name, Hsiao-kang, across more than one feature. Lu Yi-ching tends to play the mother figure, Miao Tien the father. Chen Shiang-chyi plays the young woman, be she a love interest or something else. Tsai even reuses the fish from The River. Plenty of directors work with actors multiple times, but by assigning the same cast to roughly the same parts each time, Tsai expands upon his ideas of dissociation and conformity before a film even starts: though he leaves open the possibility that the feelings of disconnect and ennui in his characters are rooted in the same people, the recycling of casts allows him to make the case that we're all becoming the same. Modern thinking coined the term "nuclear family," and it also made that unit into its own prison. No longer about community, now all we have is our immediate relatives, and we cannot even communicate with them.
The first shot of What Time is It There? hangs outside the kitchen of a humble Taiwanese home as an old man finishes preparing dinner. He walks into the room where the camera rests and sets down his plate on a table, but he doesn't eat, restlessly reaching for a cigarette and fidgeting. Though he sets a plate for no one else, he gets out of his chair and calls for Hsiao-kang, then he steps outside on the back porch and rearranges a plant. His disquiet, though calm, introduces an anxious mood, and the look of emptiness in Miao's face when he sits closer to the camera is haunting but understated. The only dialogue of the entire scene is the father shouting "Hsiao-kang!" The rest unfolds in near silence, only the rustling of the rearranged plant and the creak of the wooden chair putting something in the audio track.
In the next shot, Tsai relocates to a car with the young Hsiao-kang, now cradling a container with his father's ashes. He and his mother head to an interment, located in what almost looks like a reference library, filled with shelves of fine oak cabinets in which to store remains. Instead of the unique and differentiated headstones in Western cemeteries (one of which Tsai later shows), this place literalizes the idea that we are all equal in death, and it also suggests that we are equal and unoriginal in life. As I watched this scene, I thought of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, that horrific obsidian wall that reduces the meaningless sacrifice of so many thousands to simply their names, at once an admission of our shame and a final attempt by the powers that be to minimize the disgust by removing all humanity from the equation. We know as little about Hsiao-kang's father in death as we did in the brief amount of life we saw.
Tsai complicates the shot further by introducing the first of many tragicomic elements in the film. As the camera sits in the narrow corridor of this modernized, efficient form of interment, a Buddhist priest performs a funeral ritual, clanging chimes and chanting centuries-old prayers in the middle of this clinical room. The sight of the priest, in his bright orange robe, standing among the polished, nondescript, dark wood paneling is inherently funny, but the sorrow it communicates, of committed Buddhists trying to ensure their beloved will return, is rending. At the same time, the way that the rows of ashes resemble a kind of reference section, a place of storage, also implies that these wee cupboards might actually aid the Buddhist idea of reincarnation: they might merely be places where one's former body is stored while the spirit seeks a new host.
It's impossible to feel optimistic about that line of thought, though, when you follow the reactions of the son and wife left behind. The mother continues to hold Buddhist rituals in the hopes of bringing her husband back, constantly setting his plate for dinner and interpreting anything remotely suspicious as her husband's ghost floating around. Hsiao-kang, who does not seem as if he was ever that sociable, retreats into his room, not even leaving to urinate. Instead, he pees in plastic containers -- bags, bottles -- like Howard Hughes. During the day, he leaves the room only to go sell watches on the street, where a woman (Chen Shiang-chyi) approaches him looking for a watch that can keep two times as she is leaving for Paris soon. Unimpressed by any of the watches he's flogging, Shiang-ciyi asks if she can buy the one Hsiao-kang is wearing. Having received the watch from his father, Hsiao-kang feels not only an emotional connection to the timepiece but a superstitious one, fearing that he would give away a piece of his dad. But he relents, and the woman goes on her way.
After this brief encounter, Hsiao-kang's behavior begins to shift. On a whim, he begins to set the watches in his case to Parisian time, then any clock he can find. He visits a bootleg stand and asks for French films, taking home François Truffaut's The 400 Blows (Tsai's favorite movie). At night, he sits awake, watching this scratchy, panned and scanned version of the movie that lops off 2/3 of the original frame. Later in the film, Tsai shows the woman in Paris sitting on a bench when the star of Truffaut's masterpiece, Jean-Pierre Léaud, sits beside her and attempts to make small talk.
These tendrils snake and wave, directionless as the tentacles of a sea anemone, but they never converge or brush against each other. The vague connection that tugs at Hsiao-kang is perhaps not romantically motivated so much as the outgrowth of his increasing hollowness. No one else who stops to buy the boy's watches makes any impression, as they do the usual: they scan over Hsiao-kang's wares, maybe haggle a bit and move on. Shiang-ciyi stood out, and whether he feels any attraction to her is secondary to the mere fact that she broke the routine.
When Tsai takes his camera to Paris to follow the woman, though, he does not resort to portraying her as some free spirit to extend her unorthodox actions with Hsiao-kang. Rather, she seems as lost and without purpose as the man whose watch she purchased, if not more so. In Paris, she is naturally alienated from the domestic population, and she does not make clear why she even came. She nurses a piece of paper with a phone number but never calls the mysterious person, leaving her isolated in France. Listlessly, she wanders Paris, not even taking in the sights as she uncomfortably sits coffee in cafés as if she heard that's what Parisians do and just repeats the action over and over in an attempt to fit in. A sense of displacement pervades the film, but Shiang-chyi literalizes it, having traveled to another part of the world to find somewhere she might belong, only to be even more lost.
Compared to the ragged howl of pain in Wong Kar-wai's films, loneliness and loss in Tsai Ming-liang's movies are more contained, held behind a dam that holds back the flood until cracks appear. He denies us the catharsis of full release, achieving a pain even greater than that of Wong. Where his previous film, The River, was more explicitly about modernity and the threat of interpersonal loss in a world that now functioned on a global scale, What Time is It There? approaches the same general subject in a way that complicates and deepens it.
The problem Tsai finds in the modern world here is not that we lose all sense of connection but that there are so many possibilities opened up to us that we experience sensory overload and shut down. The mise-en-scène in Tsai's shots is always static and angled, not in mathematical precision but to ensure that no one faces horizontally, where they might make eye contact with someone to their side, nor directly at the camera, where they might at least feel us watching and caring about them. They have options, but in their confusion they wind up stuck in the middle, facing diagonally to nothing.
Numerous moments of the film speak to this disconnect. At a subway station in Paris, Shiang-chyi sees an Asian man, perhaps Taiwanese, across the gap, but when he board the train that fills the space between them, she does not move to make conversation despite the longing for communication that's plain on her face. Hsiao-kang and his mother cannot relate to each other, but if they could just sit down and talk about their emotions over the patriarch's death, they might move forward. Instead, the mother is reduced to sobbing and begging for answers from the family fish as she grips the tank desperately. Later, Hsiao-kang listens to a frothy, lightweight radio show that recounts silly news stories as a chirpy but disengaged female voice bounces through titillating nuggets. One of the stories concerns a dog running around a highway, and the woman on the radio goes through a series of awful jokes about it trying to get a suntan, only for someone to call in and say the poor thing got run over. After the slightest pause and downturn in the host's voice, she returns to business as usual, masking a sense of pain with the same hollow façade Hsiao-kang and the others use, even if they're not as bubbly.
In the film's most tragicomic moment, Hsiao-kang sits in a theater after leaving a store where he rearranged the time on the clocks. The other customer who watched him do it comes in, sits next to Hsiao-kang in a nearly empty theater, takes the kid's giant clock and walks off. Hsiao-kang follows him, ending up in a bathroom where the man opens a stall to reveal dropped pants with the clock covering his penis. It's quietly absurd, but it suggests that the man was snapped out of his own ennui and disconnect by watching Hsiao-kang. Just as the boy felt an imperceptible tug toward the woman, so too does this man to Hsiao-kang, and while it's funny when he casually knocks the stall door closed on the man and walks out with a sigh, it's also sad because Hsiao-kang cannot see his own pain in others.
There are casualties in Tsai's view of the modern world, however. The director sees the irony of his fears of cultural loss in a homogenized world when his own cinephilia sprang from European cinema, and he rather reluctantly places the New Wave on the chopping block. The hissing, snowy bootleg of The 400 Blows casts the young Jean-Pierre Léaud as a ghost, and when Shiang-chyi meets the aged Léaud, they sit in a cemetery (itself contrasting classical Western interment, ornate and influenced by Christian social values, with the crematory policy of Taiwan). Shiang-chyi has no clue who he is, both a result of generational gap and cultural separation, and Tsai clear mourns the New Wave even as he makes clear that if the final nail had not been put in the movement's coffin, he is going to be the one to do it.
The title of the film is What Time is It There?, but 'where' is a relative term dependent on 'here.' Nothing makes time more disjunctive than the cinema, which can cross space and time in a single cut. For a film that uses clocks as a central symbol, the movie wryly has a non-linear progression even though it does not seem to ever double back. The structure of the film becomes as displaced as its characters, always moving forward but never really going anywhere, never recognizing what's happening.
The climax of the film is among the most haunting I've ever seen, similar in its culminating expression of directionless ennui and existentialist doubt to the ending of Tokyo Sonata. Each of the three primary characters engages in a sexual activity that only separates them further from others. In Paris, Shiang-chyi meets a woman in a restaurant and comes back to her hotel room. They sleep together, in a literal sense, but Shiang-chyi leans over and kisses the woman as if repaying the favor of talking to someone. The woman is unresponsive. Back in Taiwan, Hsiao-kang has sex with a prostitute, while the mother vents her sorrow and her fantasies of her husband returning by masturbating with the container of her husband's ashes. The awkwardness of this and Shiang-chyi's moments might be funny, but they are intensely affecting. The mother in particular seems to think that this perverse act with bring her closer once more with her husband, that his ghost might return and pleasure her. In the end, she seals herself off, reduced to isolated self-love she envisions as reconnection instead of finding someone else. (And what Western actress would sob noiselessly, avoiding histrionics and awards-baiting monologues, while still letting snot run down her face?)
The film's final scene does not bring these people together, because that's not the point. Where so many of the "network narrative" try to link people, the only thing the characters in What Time is It There? have in common with each other, even the relatives, is how alone they are. Tsai moves at last to Paris, unable to bring mother and son together, to close on Shiang-chyi. She sits by a pool, lounging uncomfortably and meditatively in a chair built always to lean back. Behind her is an empty chair. Some children play with her suitcase, throwing it into the pool, only for Hsiao-kang's father to walk by and fish it out. What does this mean? I cannot say on a first watch, but it spoke to me about those tendrils that connect even the loneliest of people, and that perhaps all that we saw was Hsiao-kang's projection of the woman he obsessed over, looking to her to get over the pain of his father's loss. In his mind, maybe she actually did take a piece of his father with her to Paris, where he now lives. It's a magical moment, reminiscent of the end of Being There, but it also has its bleaker side. The woman who made an impression on Hsiao-kang is stuck in Paris, and his father is there too. But he remains in Taiwan, possibly imagining all this but never going there himself. Some part of him knows Paris won't really be like that, and that he will just become as alienated as Shiang-chyi there. It's the final joke in a dryly comic film, the prospect that a third of the story, as depressing as it was, was actually someone's most hopeful fantasy. But like all the other gags, it's rooted in a deep sadness that turns laughter into tears.