Arts and Entertainment
Tsai Ming-liang jumps zones.
By Johnny Ray Huston
MORE THAN 60 minutes into Tsai Ming-liang's What Time Is It There?, François Truffaut's 400 Blows briefly takes over the entire screen: as Jean Constantine's score strikes lonely disconsolate notes, Truffaut's alter ego, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), steals a glass of milk and then hides to drink it. This theft sets in motion a series of similar but sexually charged covert actions by What Time Is It There?'s central fate-crossed pair. In Taipei, Tsai's own alter ego, Hsiao Kang (Lee Kang-sheng), has sex with a prostitute. In Paris, Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi) soon shares a bed and an extended, unnerving stare down with a fellow female traveler from Hong Kong.
As a possible marker of a crush on Shiang-chyi, Hsiao Kang's rental of The 400 Blows ranks just slightly below his obsession with resetting all of Taipei's clocks to Paris time. Paris may be seven hours behind Taipei, but the real answer to the question of the movie's title is "Tsai time": an ever expanding yet selectively compressed series of moments including 1992's Rebels of the Neon God and 1996's The River that show (not tell) the stories of a family. And Tsai's clock only seems slow if you're a passive viewer. In Time's opening sequence, Hsiao Kang's father (Miao Tien) smokes a cigarette; the next scene shows him in an urn cradled by Hsiao Kang.
Faced with the death of her husband, Hsiao Kang's mother (Lu Yi Ching) is faithful this faithfulness contrasts with her philandering in The River, and she pursues it to a degree that dovetails sorrow and comedy. Anxiously, irritably awaiting the return of her husband's spirit, she blows fuses, applies electrical tape to the walls of her and Hsiao Kang's darkened apartment (shades of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse), and cooks midnight meals of duck for the dear departed. Her son would rather pee into bottles and bags than venture out of his bedroom and face her frenzied devotion.
Time unites Tsai with phosphorescent cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, and it's suspiciously obvious that the distant "romance" between watch vendor Hsiao Kang and Shiang-chyi (who uses money and persistence to pry a dual-timepiece from his wrist before departing for France) stands in for the director's relationship to European movies. Crowned with a new Jean Seberg hairdo, the Paris version of Shiang-chyi is adrift, and unlike Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep, she can't craft a cathartic escape. A withdrawn, morose twin of her Taipei persona, she's abandoned without warning by everyone she encounters, even passengers on a subway train. The one exception is a predatorial, aged playboy in black leather at a cemetery a playboy who, once (twice ...) upon a time, stole a bottle of milk.
A master of portraiture who just happens to let actors move through his "stills," Tsai further hones his trademark field-of-vision magic tricks. (Words only scratch the surface of his ambivalent depth perception; attempts at narrative and plot description are mere Rorschach results.) In Hsiao Kang's family's apartment, a door opens onto another door opening onto another. Out on the streets, antlike masses of people crisscross one endlessly detailed "static" shot: as Hsiao Kang performs a clumsy Harold Lloyd dance with a skyscraper's giant clock, above him Helen Hunt and Mel Gibson smile idiotically from a gargantuan billboard that's rendered tiny by Tsai's composition.
Though Tsai is still a magician adept at juggling water, his focus
has shifted to a clock wisdom (sometimes a counterclock wisdom) that
finds a certain wry delight in the awkward two-step of a broken digital
screen when it gets to zero. This wisdom reaches its comic apex when
a stolen movie theater clock strikes 12 and viewers are left to wonder
whether the man holding it is moving the hands of time with his own
hands or with his cock. And in Tsai's first transcontinental meditation,
it's fitting that Hsiao Kang's father makes a mysterious return
only to perform a grand exit of Lola Montes proportions.