Here, There, and Everywhere
Eric Hynes on What Time Is It There?

Proverbial wisdom be damned: absence doesn't make the heart grow fonder—it makes the heart crawl beneath the sheets and sob and throb ceaselessly, sleeplessly, for days that feel like weeks, growing not fond, nothing so feathery as fond, but more and more sore. Sore from the hurt, from anger, from being left or having to leave, sore from all of that uninterrupted feeling.

Tsai Ming-liang works too subtly and too organically to lay it out for us, but with What Time Is It There? he explores every worthy connotation of the word departure, from taking a trip away to taking the final, mortal bow; from making a substantive personal change to simply saying goodbye. Even better, he shows how it all amounts to the same, sore thing.

The familiar, deceptively light question posed by the film's title is actually a suitable, vernacular expression of no less than the state of being. Time, rather than a fixed fact, is a collusional construct, a structure—while eminently useful and essential—that's descriptive, not prescriptive. Tsai yanks time back to its original metaphorical plane, where it ticks and tocks, the tin man's new heart filling the empty space, making sense, the best it can, of what's behind, before, and beyond us. Too slow, too dismayed to operate in the swift seconds of the literal here and now, we're yet capable, as that question implies, of imagining (or at least wondering) what it's like over there, of setting our hearts to another time, of being in both places—if sloppily—at once. It gives our lives spatial dimension and, for the privilege, gives us heartbreak.

The first scene, an otherwise banal documentation of an old man (Miao Tien) sitting and moving quietly through an empty apartment, establishes the film's vocabulary (long, deep focused stationary shots), sets the tone (quiet, attentive, humanely whimsical), and immediately involves the viewer in its exploration of absence: at the outset of the second scene it's implied that the old man has died, and those first, banal moments are all we'll have to call on while his wife and son spend the better part of the film grieving his loss.

As with our short glimpse of the old man, interactions throughout What Time Is It There? are fleeting; over time, in the company of only oneself, moments of contact swell with meaning, memories carrying into the future a deepened feeling for what's past. Rather than receding, the hunger to recall what's passed imbues meaning in everything, animating the inanimate, impregnating empty space, and bending time. Tsai shows people literalizing their loss by fixating on objects: the widow (Lu Yi-ching) tries to bring back her husband's spirit by casting spells on household items, cooking his favorite meals, and adjusting to “his time” by covering the windows and eating and sleeping at strange hours. Though it's never shown, “his time”—as established by the off-time kitchen clock—was likely set by the son, Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng), a watch salesman we'd earlier seen changing the clocks in his bedroom to “Paris time” in honor of a Paris-bound girl, Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi), to whom he sold his own dual-time watch. But the son never corrects his mother, and nor does Tsai define which clock time is Paris and which is Taipei: they’re each in their own time, sharing a space but in different orbits, real time subordinate to the desire to span all that empty space and get back in step, in time, with the departed.

Tolerant at first, Hsiao-kang grows weary of his mother's erratic and desperate behavior, and he tries to make her stop. But he can't, nor can he offer any comfort save for staying out of the way. Convinced that the deceased will return, she forbids the killing of any living thing for 49 days. When a cockroach is apprehended in the kitchen, the son drops it into the fish tank, where it is immediately, comically devoured. Before long, mother surmises that her husband's traveling soul is in fact swimming around in the belly of their large white carp. Face to face with the fish, water rimming her eyes, it's a devastatingly funny moment. Irrational and pathetic in her grief, she proceeds to speak with shattering honesty. “Have you come back to see me?” she asks, expressing abandonment's deepest desire. If only, as if it would make it better, or easier, or less lonely—if only the departed could see us in our grief. To him, to the fish, to us, to herself, she confides, “It's just so hard.”

Hsiao-kang acts just as erratically, transferring his grief to an obsession with Shiang-chyi in Paris. Though dismissive of his mother's reliance on magical spells to reach the dead, his obsession with the girl has something—though not everything—to do with the dictum that it's bad luck to take an object, such as the watch, from a person in mourning. (He relays this to Shang-chyi before finally relenting and selling her the watch; to allay his fears, she claims no belief in luck: “I'm a Christian.”) By keeping time with her, and trying to align Taipei's time—through increasingly risqué public clock manipulations—with Paris's, he's moved by the desire both to be with her and to protect her. It's not much, but with father gone forever and mother out to lunch, his traveling sympathies are keeping him, and his grief, company.

Shiang-chyi, in turn, lives the perpetually temporary existence of a foreign traveler, always alone, always on the move, always in her own head. She's got that dual-time watch, keeping her in both places at once and never fully anywhere. A bold gaze from a stranger is at first returned and then rebuffed. Meals are at once commonplace and uncommonly thick with anxiety. She asks for help, and then, when it's given, she grows weary of the generosity. To travel alone is to prefer, on some level, one's own company; on another level, travel widens the search for connection; on all levels, one grows terribly lonely and desperate for the company of another. Tsai's observations here are pitch-perfect, detailed and emotionally specific, and yet iconic. Isolation of this sort, of the silent traveler in a city where one doesn't speak the language, has a certain sound, and What Time Is It There? has it down. By going without a score for the duration of the picture, Tsai calls attention to the ambient noise of various spaces, and to the tentative, spooky and spooked noises bodies make when alone with themselves. In the city spaces that the girl passes through, silences are cavernous and sounds, like the banging in an upstairs hotel room or the click of heels on an empty street, are amplified and threatening.

While mother's grief crescendos with a fancy (and ultimately masturbatory) date at home with her beloved's photograph, the two young principals move against their tide of isolation and try to connect with other human beings: Hsiao-kang, in his car, with a prostitute, and Shiang-chyi in the bed of a fellow female Chinese expat. Fresh from letting their mutual connection pass too quickly, they each hold on too long and too strong, looking for company where only momentary comfort was on offer. Burned, Tsai literalizes their worsening state of affairs by leaving them robbed—boy of his wares, and girl of her belongings. They sleep heavily, and no doubt will be more sore in the morning.

Then, after staring so long into the faces of absence, there's presence. As the girl sleeps a lonely sleep in the grey dawn by the Tuileries, a face familiar to us movie-lovers appears and retrieves her errant suitcase from the reflection pool. Paris time is “his time” after all. It's a gift from the filmmaker, a generous, godly gift of grace. There's no rest for the weary in the real world—nor even for the three achingly lonely principal characters in What Time Is It There?—but before releasing the privileged viewers from his world, his lovely, lovingly human spell, Tsai Ming-liang reaches across time zones, across language barriers, and likely well into the future, to provide comfort.