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With: Lee Kang-sheng, Chen Shiang-Chyi, Lu Yi-Ching, Miao Tien
Written by: Tsai Ming-liang, Yang Pi-ying
Directed by: Tsai Ming-liang
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Taiwanese, Mandarin, French with English subtitles
Running Time: 116
Date: 03/18/2013

What Time Is It There? (2001)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

The 'Time' of Your Life

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang has taken his trademark style and refined it to a crystalline point with his newest film What Time Is It There? It's his purest and funniest film, though his 1997 film The River remains possibly his most accomplished.

The one problem is that, for newcomers, Tsai's style has become perhaps even more difficult to penetrate. I would recommend viewers check out the other Tsai films on video, Vive L'amour and The Hole to get an idea of his particular vision and odd sense of humor. (The River has not yet been released on video.)

The movie begins on a long shot of a middle-aged man (Miao Tien) smoking, preparing to eat lunch and then wandering outside and off-camera. It's the last we'll see of him alive.

The man, it turns out, was Hsiao-kang's father. Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng, the hero of each Tsai film) returns, this time reincarnated as a watch salesman. His father's death affects both he and his mother (Lu Yi-Ching) strangely. The mother begins preparing for the father's reincarnation, building a shrine to him and fixing meals for him, even in the middle of the night.

Meanwhile, Hsiao-kang becomes obsessed with a beautiful girl who buys a watch from him just before leaving to France. She's not interested in any of the sale watches and ends up buying Hsiao-kang's own watch. Hsiao-kang tries renting French movies to imagine what the girl's trip must be like. He watches Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows, Tsai's favorite movie in real life.

Against all reason, Tsai also follows the girl (Chen Shiang-Chyi) on her adventures in Paris, marking the first time the director has shot outside of his Taipei home. These mostly consist of her listening to her noisy upstairs neighbors in her hotel room and meeting the actor Jean-Pierre Leaud (from The 400 Blows) in a cemetery. So Hsiao-kang probably has a better idea of her life than he realizes.

Back in Taipei, Hsiao-kang begins a new obsession by resetting every clock he can get his hands on from Taipei time to Paris time, from the watches in his sale case to a giant clock at the top of a tower (in a way resembling the famous scene from Harold Lloyd's 1923 film Safety Last).

For What Time Is It There? Tsai toned down his barely moving camera to one that doesn't move at all. Every scene consists of a single, unmoving shot. And like his earlier films, this one also contains very little dialogue. This somehow enhances the humor of the script, as in Jacques Tati (Mr. Hulot's Holiday), as well as the austerity, as in Robert Bresson (Pickpocket).

Just when the film seems to have run out of places to go, Tsai wraps it all up with a stunning closing scene that echoes both the beauty and absurdity of the universe, playing on the grace of one character and the ridiculousness of another.

But for me, the funniest and most representative scene in the film has to do with a fish and a cockroach -- a scene that Truffaut himself would have labeled a "stolen moment," or a moment of real life entering into a film completely by accident. This small scene, as well as the larger ones, makes you ponder your place in the world and then laugh about it.

DVD Details: Wellspring's DVD comes with filmographies, trailers, optional subtitles, weblinks and director's notes.

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