Providence's Alternative Source!

It's no accident
The genius of Tsai Ming-liang's What Time Is It There?

What Time Is It There? Directed by Tsai Ming-liang. Written by Tsai Ming-liang and Yang Pi-ying. With Lee Kang-sheng, Chen Shiang-chyi, Lu Yi-ching, Miao Tien, Cecilia Yip, and Jean-Pierre Léaud. A Wellspring release. At the Cable Car Cinema.

[What Time Is It There?] Between the first and second shots of What Time Is It There?, the latest film from Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang, the father (Miao Tien) of the main character, Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng), dies. Since it takes place off screen, without warning or preparation, and since it is, in a sense, never acknowledged (though Hsiao-kang's actions throughout the film might be seen as attempts at mourning it), this death can't quite be called an event in the narrative. It's more like a mysterious absence holding together the various connections -- made and missed -- that make up this rich and beautiful film.

Hsiao-kang spends his days selling watches from a suitcase at the Taipei railway station. One day shortly after his father's death, he meets Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi), a young woman who is about to go to Paris and who insists on buying the watch he is wearing. Shaken by this encounter, Hsiao-kang develops a compulsion to reset to Paris time all the watches and clocks within his reach. Meanwhile, Shiang-chyi leads a lonely tourist's life in Paris. (Making no concession to the tourist's view, or even to some idealization of tourism, Tsai films Paris as if it were Taipei.) The mood of the Paris scenes is set by a superb cut from Shiang-chyi looking at herself in the mirror in her hotel bathroom -- a look that combines empty expectancy with hopelessness -- to Shiang-chyi sitting alone at a table in a busy café, staring out the window with the same taut but abstracted expression.

The relationship between Hsiao-kang and Shiang-chyi is filled with mystery. Why must she have his watch, and only his watch? No doubt she's attracted to his time -- an attraction based on the fact that both of them face the loss of time, or a change of time: he has just lost his father, she is about to depart for Paris. He understands that to take someone's watch is to take his time. So he warns her that his watch will bring bad luck: he's had a death in the family. Since she's a Christian, such causes won't have such effects for her, she insists. But she knows the symbolic importance of the watch, which is why, seconds after leaving the frame with it, she reappears unexpectedly to give him the cake she bought earlier. And this gift leaves him staring off screen, stunned: he knows he has just been struck by fate.

The giving of food or drink is a key motif in What Time Is It There? In the first shot, Hsiao-kang's father prepares some food and calls Hsiao-kang, who's not there to share it. Perhaps this aborted gift is the true absence that sets the film in motion. But the film never makes you feel that there's a single key -- food, clocks, or anything else -- that would unlock its secrets. It offers numerous entry points and paths through its forest of symbols.

A director of Bressonian rigor and Renoirian delicacy, Tsai loves things that "just happen." In one scene, Shiang-chyi sits on the bed in her hotel room eating a snack. She drinks from a bottle of water, then, putting the bottle down on the floor, lets it go too soon and spills it -- an occurrence she meets with a wonderfully natural "oh" that's like a statement of fact. In another scene, Hsiao-kang catches a cockroach and drops it into a fish tank. The large white fish that is the master of the tank observes the cockroach for a while, then swallows it. No doubt these moments were planned (even so, what planning could have made the shot of the fish eating the cockroach go so perfectly?), but they are no less beautiful for that. The magic of the film is to give us a feeling of multiplied time: the sense that small accidents of space and movement have been minutely prepared and are filled with inevitability -- without losing their quality of being accidents.

"Time is the accident of accidents," according to Epicurus. Which perhaps means that time is a certain schedule of the order and duration of accidents. What Time Is It There? is a story about two people who try to switch their schedules and make themselves available to different sets of accidents. And it's also a meditation on what constitutes an accident in films: a "chance encounter" within a frame that a director (if the director is profound, like Tsai) has set with the hopeful design of capturing just such a chance.

Issue Date: May 17 - 23, 2002