What Time is it There? Movie Review
In What Time is it There?, like his previous work with The Hole and Vive L'Amour, Ming-Liang utilizes long, ponderous, closely-framed shots of characters amidst detailed backgrounds that reveal more about their lives than anything that could come out of their mouths. It's not whether the character is clean or dirty so much as the items in their lives that make up these traits. There is virtually no dialogue. Together, these elements create the thrill of unpredictability. There seems no reason for the camera to linger on a specific moment, and there are no recognizable clues as to what will happen next. It's a fascinating, but irritating, way to keep your attention focused on screen. You never know if a character is going to speak or what reaction they will have to a given situation, if any at all.
The plot also matters little, or at least his films aren't based on a structure of specific events in a given order. Ming-Liang seems to appreciate a documentarian's view, letting the camera hang at a particular angle for a given period of time while people or props cross in and out of frame at will. The focus is kept on portraying the complexities of human nature, mostly feelings associated with alienation. All the other film-related aspects of situation, environment, and even camera work play second fiddle.
What Time is it There? centers on the experiences of Hsiao Kang (Lee Hang-Sheng, whom Ming-Liang has used in all of his films) after his father dies. Kang sells watches from a suitcase on street corners, smokes a lot, watches television, and basically walks through life on auto-pilot -- until a customer who comes to purchase a watch begs him for his watch before she leaves for Paris. For no known reason, possibly just looking for some purpose to guide himself, Kang sets out to change all the clocks in Taipei to reflect what time it would be in Paris.
Meanwhile, he and his mother recede from each other. As Kang's obsession with clocks escalates, so do his mother's compulsive acts to help his father's spirit return. It is in these uncomfortable familial scenes that Ming-Liang's techniques strike their strongest chords. It is impossible to know how far each will disrupt the other's life before something gives.
There is method behind those excessively long takes, during which your interest is piqued into believing that surely something is going to happen soon. The buildup of silences and tension is akin to horror films where you know somebody is about to get killed. Only many of There?'s scenes are disappointing because nothing does ever happen. Payoffs occur much later in the film. Suddenly, Ming-Liang will cut to the next scene and you'll still be trying to figure out what he was accomplishing in the last. This style of directing is effective but it's consistently tiresome.
The physical extension of scenes makes this 2-hour film feel much longer. That the majority is focused specifically on one character at a time, often for 15-minute stretches, doesn't help either. Still, the characters are easy to relate to, and that helps to hold interest. Overall, What Time is it There? is not so much a work of entertainment as it is a unique, well-crafted psychological study of grief.
Aka Ni neibian jidian.
Time for a nap, that's what time it is!