Friday, January 13, 2006

What Time Is It There?



The films of Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang are often compared to those of Ozu and Antonioni. What Time is it there, which is the first film by him that I have seen, explains why. Like Ozu he is the master of long shots and static camera and his portrayal of urban alienation and dislocation harks back to the great films that Antonioni made in the sixties exploring the similar themes. Although Tsai is different from those two in the sense that he has a great sense of humour (although the jokes will not make you laugh, rather leave you sadder than before!).

The film is about a young pavement watchseller who lives with his parents in a dingy-looking apartment in the city of Taipei. After the death and funeral of his father, he is approached by a young girl who is leaving for Paris and looking for a dual-time watch. When she expresses an interest in buying the personal watch of the hero, he very reluctantly sells it to her. In the meanwhile his mother becomes extremely disconsolate and grief stricken and becomes obsessed with reincarnation of her husband's spirit. The film then cuts forth between the scenes of these three characters and their plight. The hero becomes obsessed with the girl and starts setting the time of all the clocks within his reach, and some outside his reach too, to Paris time zone. He starts renting French movies and grows particularly fascinated with The 400 Blows (Jean Pierre Leaud has a small cameo in the film too). Mother starts cooking for her husband's spirit in odd hours thinking that the time zone of the spirit must be different from the time zone of human beings and the girl experiences a severe sense of dislocation in Paris because of language and cultural problems.

As can be imagined most of the film is dialogueless showing how these three characters go through their daily lives battling with their alienation and loneliness. After all who can they talk to, and even if they get to talk to any stranger it is hardly one complete sentence. There are a few sexual situations but they change nothing. The characters remain in their melancholy private hells until the end. Hero meets a prostitute on the street, the girl takes another girl to her hotel room and hesitantly makes sexual advances while the mother masturbates with the photo of her husband placed on the bedside (it is not as creepy as it sounds, it is actually very very sad and slightly funny in a painful way). All three scenes are shown one after the other establishing the linked fate of all the characters.

I was reading about Tsai's other films and I came to know that his previous films like The River, The Hole and Vive L'amour are far darker and explore the similar themes of individuals struggling with the ennui and melancholy of their daily existence in big cities. I am quite excited about seeing his other films.

Link to an interview of Tsai Ming-Liang and a review in Salon.

5 comments:

ventilatorblues said...

Also "Goodbye Dragon Inn". Simply astonishing, and not that dark. In fact, hilarious at times. Yet the film has no dialogue to speak of.

Alok said...

thanks vb. I read about this too. I will check it out.

Space Bar said...

alok, i would strongly recommend that you watch tsai ming-liang's films in the order he made them. i can see why The River would underwhelm you, under the circs.

and if you are watching his films out of order, then after what time, you should watch his short, the skywalk is gone followed by wayward cloud.

but like i said, it is impossible to make sense of ming-liang if you don't do him chronologically. see my blog post, one long film.

Alok said...

thanks! I have realized this. I think he is one of the most obsessive filmmakers currently working. In a way he is making one single film and showing us parts of it one after the another and in another way, he is making the same film over and over again.

so far I have seen only three of his films What Time is it there?, The Hole and The River. I think I found the river underwhelming because I was not in the right mood, not because it was bad in itself. You can't like one movie of his and hate another! that's the way he works.

I realize that what time is it there?, the skywalk is gone and the wayward cloud are all part of a single narrative. also the musical in the last film is a throwback to similar scenes in the hole but I am yet to see these films :)

also perhaps you already know, his latest I don't want to sleep alone was shown at Venice and Toronto this month. the name says it all, he hasn't changed anything. :)

Space Bar said...

haven't seen i don't want to sleep alone. no doubt i will by the end of the year!