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Exploring Taiwan: Film
and Social Culture in Taiwan
What Time Is It There? Film Analysis
What Time Is It There? (Chinese: ?????n? nà bi?n j? di?n) is a 2001 Taiwanese melancholic romance film, the 5th film directed by Tsai Ming- Liang, one of the most celebrated and prominent “Second New Wave” film directors of Taiwanese cinema. While What Time Is It There? is not as well-known as his The Golden Lion winning Vive L’Amour (1994) – one of the only two Taiwanese film to do so, What Time Is It There? is also an critically acclaimed film and equally appealing – It has won the Chicago Film Festival Grand Jury Prize for Best Director and Best Cinematography, won the Technical Grand Prize, Cannes 2001 (Tuu Duu-Chih for sound design), and also being nominated for the Cannes Film Festivel, Palme d’Or 2001. Plot Summary The movie’s man main role, Hsiao-Kang, is a young man selling wristwatches on the streets of Taipei for living. Hsiao-Kang has a miserable, grim home life. In an early scene of the movie, his father dies. He and his mother then perform Buddhist rituals in guided by a monk. At night, he starts peeing in plastic containers or in his room, presumably afraid to go out of his room and bump into his father’s ghost. A few days after his father’s death, Hsiao-Kang has a brief yet fateful encounter with a beautiful young women, the movie’s heroine Shiang-chyi, who wants to buy his dual time wristwatch. While he initially wary and refuses to sell, believing that it would bring a bad luck to Shiang-Chyi as he is currently mourning his dead father, after relentless and aggresive persuasion from her, who is heading off to Paris, Kang eventually complies and sell it to the girl. Meanwhile, his mother, unable to come to the terms with the fact that his husband has ceased to exist, become obsessed with the idea that her husband may be reincarnated, possibly even as a cockroach or as his son’s pet fish. Hsiao-kang is much more sceptical than her mother, and finds that her mother’s recent behaviour exasperating and incomprehensible. Hsiao, although has only met Shiang-chyi briefly and barely spoke to her – and only about watches and time related stuffs, still becomes so obsessed with her that he becomes fascinated with all things related to French, including the French films of François Truffaut and French wine, and he also humorously begins to re-set watches to Paris time. First, he changes the time of all of the watches in his display case. Afterwards, he changes the time of all of the watches and clocks that he sees, and it culminates with Hsiao changing the time of a gigantic clock on a huge building, resembling Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! (1923) most memorable scene.
While Hsiao is obsessed
with clocks, his mother’s reincarnation fixation is growing stronger and
stronger, prompting her to do increasingly outlandish and elaborate measures,
such as covering all of the windows with blankets and papers (since “he’s
afraid of the light”, she claims), and reorganizing the daily routine
activities time to live in accordance with “his husband’s time”, which is the time of the living-room clock that has mysteriously been switched (it’s highly probable
that the time of the living-room clock is changed by Hsiao off-screen). Despite
the clear vexation that his son shows, calling her crazy and try to stop her
doing these, Hsiao’s mother keep persisting and doesn’t want to listen.
Eventually, Hsiao relents and stop caring.
Elsewhere in Paris, Shiang-Chyi, as a tourist who does not speak the
language, found herself being all alone in an unfamilar environment. She wanders
the streets and travels aimlessly on the
metro, going from one cafe to another cafe, and to a cemetery, where she meets Jean-Pierre Leaud, a lead actor in François Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows”, while
coincidentally in Taipei, Hsiao is watching that movie in his apartment. Afterwards, Shiang Chyi meets a woman from Hong Kong and
easily befriends and make a connection with her, something that she has failed
to do with the local people
Eventually, on the climax scenes of the movie, all three lonely people
(Hsiao, Shiang-Chyi, and Hsiao’s mother), try to ease their loneliness through
sex — Hsiao having sex with a female prostitute, Shiang-Chyi with the Hong Kongese woman that she
has just met, and Hsiao’s mother, after concocting a romantic candle-lit dinner
for her and her ethereal husband, masturbates while thinking of him. However, it only leaves the characters in an even profound distress and emptiness, with the prostitute steals Hsiao’s case of watches, and
children steal Shiang-Chyi’s suitcase while she is sleeping on the bench, and
set it afloat in the lake beside which she sleeps.
In the last scene, the case floats adrift the screen in front of
the sleeping Shiang Chyi, until finally it is taken out of the water by none
other than Hsiao Kang’s father or his doppelgänger, who gently sets it down before walking toward a large, slowly rotating ferris
& Narrative Strategy
the case with Tsai’s other four previous films, What
Time Is It There? is mostly silent, providing little to no dialogue between
characters, and practically no music (aside from “The 400 Blows” theme played
scarcely). There are almost no close ups. There is also no cinematographic
panning shots, instead, each scene is a long static shot – the camera is set up in one position and doesn’t
cut until the end of the scene, which enable audience to freely
analyze the depth of the image and searching the imagery that Tsai left behind
as a clues. With the pacing of the story devilishly slow in an
attempt to draw audience deeper into the mood and emotion of the story, frequent
long pause without any dialogue ,purportedly quite opaque storyline, and kind
of dark, subtle humour that not every kind of audience will understand and appreciate,
it is quite evident that What Time Is It
There? is an
art film – it is not aimed towards the mass market
audience, it presents little for entertainment but much for contemplation, provoking a deep observation in its characters and self-observation in the audience itself.
last scene in particular is what intrigues me the most. What does the ferris
wheel symbolize? What does Hsiao’s
father or doppelgänger symbolize? What was on Tsai’s mind when he was making
this scene? Is there a bigger meaning hidden that I failed to comprehend, or it
is just a mischievous trolling from Tsai to make the audiences feel puzzled?
Whatever the answer is, that scene is
the perfect example on how What Time Is It There? can spark the curiosity
from the audiences to wonder what the movie
is trying to say.
In What Time Is It There?,
Tsai tries to depict the loneliness, depression and isolation that many adults
have suffered, and how they deal with it. He also cleverly shows how loneliness
can make people do , believe in anything – even something that most people would
find as absurdities – as long as it enable them to fill the hole in their heart.
The perfect example of this is Hsiao-Kang’s mother. In order to cope with the
loneliness that she felt after the death of his husband, she believes and do
some unthinkable stuffs to normal people – making even her also hardly normal
son to even call her crazy. She does not care. As long as it can give her life
a purpose, it is okay. I do believe this is how Tsai wants to portray the
mentality of people suffering with loneliness and isolation.
Loneliness, depression, and isolation among adults are universal societal problems, it
exists anywhere , it exists anytime and
it does not discriminate, just like how it is shown in this movie.
As for the film’s relevance with Contemporary Taiwan, we can
see that in the film, the older generation speaks Taiwanese to each other,
while communication between families and the younger generation is using
Mandarin, which is just like how it is in Taiwan right now. This film also show
Taiwanese culture, such as the belief in Mahayana Buddhism – Taiwan’s major
religion and the practice of ??, which many Taiwanese indeed do in the
real life, especially the older people.
Overall, I can not find many relatable aspects from this film
with Contemporary Taiwan, due to this story’s simplistic plot and the fact that
Tsai does not care where the film take place, nor does he have the intention to
overly include Taiwanese culture / related stuffs in this film — This film is focused on with the synchronized
dynamics between the character and what is the feeling inside the characters.
To sum it up, What Time Is It There? is not
exactly your typical Taiwanese movie. It has an unique and unconventional style
that not every cinema goers will appreciate and respect. What Time Is It There? will
either be an unforgettable, thought-provoking film that you can’t get enough of,
or you will find it so boring that even finishing the movie seems like an unendurable