After opening with a static, four-minute shot of an old man sitting in a chair, the conceptual Taiwanese drama-comedy "What Time Is It There?" does pick up a bit -- but there's an element of that cinematic passivity in evidence throughout the rest of the film.
At its heart are three interconnected stories just begging to be infused with a little clever commotion, which director Tsai Ming-Liang keeps in short supply even though he's quite daring and creative in his quiescent observational style.
One story is about the old man's forlorn widow (Lu Yi-Ching), who becomes obsessed with coaxing her husband's spirit to return to their home. The second follows the old man's son (Lee Kang-Sheng), a street vendor who falls instantly in love with a girl (Chen Shiang-Chyi) who buys a dual time zone wristwatch from him on her way to the airport for a flight to Paris. The girl's trip to the City of Lights then becomes the third narrative.
As Chen dabbles in the freedoms of self-discovery, the young man who can't get her out of his head goes about Taipei, compulsively setting every clock he can get his hands on to Paris time. This includes clocks on the tops of buildings, which requires some surreptitious sneaking about, and the clock in his mother's living room, which she mistakes as a sign from the dearly departed.
Much oddity ensues on all fronts, which Tsai records exclusively in lengthy, curious and arcane static shots that become fascinating in their own way after a while. The characters are developed -- and developed well -- largely through body language since dialogue comes along only about every fourth scene.
But Tsai often lingers just as long on the irrelevant as he does on the engaging, which gradually turns "What Time Is It There?" into "How Long Is This Movie?" Couldn't he, for example, lose the scene in which we watch Lee wake up, take a leak in a clear plastic bag for no apparent reason, then go back to sleep?
All of this is done with a countenance of such intentional lethargy that the film starts to feel like it will take up every minute of those nine hours our hero adds to the timepieces of Taipei.