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Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2002

Alone again, naturally

What Time Is It There?

Rating: * * * *
Director: Tsai Ming-liang
Running time: 116 minutes
Language: Mandarin/French/English
Now showing

Tsai Ming-liang, one of the most important Asian filmmakers today, is a specialist on loneliness and the self-imposed, gnawing solitude that preys upon city dwellers. His stories always strike at the most sensitive of nerves with the precision of a veteran shiatsu master -- causing us to flinch, to blanch, to turn away.

News photo
Lee Kang-sheng in "What Time Is It There?"

His characters never know how to talk to or touch each other; even as they do so, they remain encapsulated in their individual, desperate solitude. Love and companionship, always seemingly within reach, eludes them like a desert mirage. Watching them is a reconfirmation of how alienating city life can be and the often futile results of interacting with others.

At the same time, Tsai leaves a measure of kindness in his gaze, an almost fatherly sympathy that saves his stories from tottering over the cliffside of despair. Just before the hurling decent, the stories stop. They look down into the canyon below, take a minute to ponder, then remain unmoving. And that is the amazing quality of a Tsai Ming-liang work -- one imagines a rocky gorge with all his films neatly lined up on the edge, immobile as statues.

"What Time Is It There?" is Tsai's latest and is probably the kindest of all his films. The sense of isolation is there, but this time his characters are connected by a fragile thread that keeps alive a small but distinct flame inside them and gives them (dare I say it?) hope. Typically, he concentrates on a handful of people -- a boy, his parents and a girl -- city wanderers plagued by nameless desires and inconsolable loneliness. The protagonist, as always, is Hsiao Kang, portrayed by Lee Kang-sheng, Tsai's muse and leading actor for the past 10 years.

Lee is a master of silence: His unspoken sentences and bored, distracted expressions have an eloquence and humor other actors can't match. Over the years, Tsai and Lee had worked on this character to formulate him into a trademark, and a Tsai film is now the equivalent of a Hsiao Kang film. Tsai has said that he never wants Lee to become a "professional actor," but to remain as Hsiao Kang, "someone who can move people to all kinds of emotions, just by being there." And being there is what this picture is all about.

The city is Taipei, and Hsiao Kang sells cheap watches on the street. His father has just died, and his mother (Lu Yi-ching) has lost it, inviting weird fortunetellers to their apartment, hoping to recall the spirit of her husband. Hsiao Kang doesn't know how to treat his mom and avoids the violence of her emotions.

One afternoon, Shiang Chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi) comes up and asks to buy the watch he has on his wrist. Hsiao Kang refuses at first, but she insists. Shiang Chyi is due to leave for Paris the next day, and she really needs that watch. Reluctantly, Hsiao Kang sells it to her. To show her appreciation, she buys him some cakes. They say goodbye.

In Paris, Shiang Chyi stomps the streets or holes up in cafes, drinking innumerable cups of coffee. She has Hsiao Kang's cell-phone number and tries to call several times, but something always disrupts her until finally, she loses the scrap of paper. Unable to speak French, make friends or even order a meal in a restaurant, Shiang Chyi tires and despairs.

She finds temporary solace in meeting a fellow stranger from Hong Kong (Cecilia Yip), but the two quickly realize they have little to say to each other. In the meantime, Hsiao Kang is obsessed by the memory of Shiang Chyi and the watch that now ticks on her wrist. He resets every clock he can get his hands on, so that they tell the time in Paris. At night, he watches Truffaut's "Le Quatre cent coups" over and over, because the video shop guy told him it's full of Parisian street scenes.

Tsai divides the film between Taipei and Paris, but through his lens, both cities look grainy, devoid of people and enveloped by wintry silence (enhanced by the complete absence of a soundtrack). Hsiao Kang and Shiang Chyi wander the streets separately on opposite sides of the globe, each aware of a longing to be together but unaware that the other person shares this longing.

Funnily, neither are cut out to be love objects, at least not in the cinematic way, bringing a special tang of humor that lingers in the mouth like spice candies. Hsiao Kang has a penchant for urinating into plastic bags and bottles he keeps in his room. He picks up a live cockroach (which his mother insists is the spirit of his father, dropping in to say hello) and feeds it to his fish. Shiang Chyi has so many coffees she vomits in a cafe, then burps when someone asks if she's OK.

"What Time Is It There?" weaves in these specific physical details with the abstract mental landscape of the two characters, as if inviting us to chuckle or weep, or both, at the human condition called loneliness.

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