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'What Time Is It There?'

Taiwanese film wallows in its own theme

Friday, April 05, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

All right, I admit it. When I attended the screening of the Taiwanese movie "What Time Is It There?" I wasn't entirely sure what time it was here.

 
 
'What Time Is It There?'

RATING: Unrated; contains sexual situations.

STARRING: Lee Kang-Sheng, Chen Shiang-Chyi, Lu Yi-Ching.

DIRECTOR: Tsai Ming-Liang.

WEB SITE: www.what-time-movie.com

CRITIC'S CALL:

   
 

I had returned from Los Angeles just three days earlier, which meant my brain still believed I should be asleep at that hour of the morning. Alas, "What Time Is It There" didn't do anything to convince my brain otherwise.

Director Tsai Ming-Liang specializes in long, static shots. I don't think the camera moves once during the entire film, and not until halfway through does it cut to a second shot in the same location.

Time passes slowly, endlessly, maddeningly in this film, like a punishment visited upon its lonely, obsessed characters -- or upon the audience, depending on your ability to find the deadpan humor that other critics have noted in praising the movie.

Lee Kang-Sheng plays a young man who sells watches from a suitcase on the street corner. His father has just died, and his mother (Lu Yi-Ching) is convinced that he will return in one form or another, be it a cockroach or the large pet fish swimming in the tank in her living room.

A young woman insists on buying the watch-seller's own timepiece, even though he insists it will bring her bad luck because of his father's recent death.

She jets off to Paris, where she seems to be lost and bewildered most of the time. He can't get her off his mind, and starts setting all his watches -- and, later, all the clocks he comes across -- to Paris time. Meanwhile, the mother sinks further into the madness of despair, cutting off the lights in the apartment and loading a plate full of food in front of an empty chair at each meal.

The loneliness of the characters is as tangible as it is obvious. Many critics have compared the film's deadpan veneer to that of the great stone face himself, Buster Keaton, who used his implacability as a vehicle for comedy that, unlike silent-film comrade Charlie Chaplin, disguised the pathos.

Here, the deadpan accentuates the emotional sterility of the characters and disguises the pretentiousness of the movie, which is one of those films that refer to classic cinema as a way of validating its own artiness. After the girl has gone to Paris and the watch-seller starts obsessing on things French, he rents a tape of "The 400 Blows" and watches Antoine Doinel riding the rotor and drinking a bottle of milk he has stolen from a doorstep in the dark before the dawn. Later, in Paris, the girl has a casual encounter with Jean-Pierre Leaud, the actor who played Antoine.

But "The 400 Blows" was about life bursting from out of a young boy. "What Time Is It There" is all about existential lifelessness. Who has time for that?

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