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Questions About What Time is it There?

Jazzalo​ha

over 4 years ago

Just saw this, and I don’t know what to make of it. I need answers to some questions before I can understand what’s going on, but I don’t know if I want to put in the time and effort to answer those questions. So maybe those who love this film (and can remember specifics) can help me out. Here’s my general understanding of the film so far.

(spoilers)

The film seems to be about time and loss. The father’s spirit (lonely) enters into the watch of his son. The girl who buys the watch from the son (Does her desire for the watch signify anything important?) and goes off to Paris. There she’s alienated, lonely and even gets sick. Back in Taiwan, the mother/wife misses her husband and wants his spirit to return to the house (but apparently doesn’t?). The son is initially afraid of the father’s spirit possibly returning.

Some questions:

1. What does the watch/clocks represent? What’s the relationship between the clocks and the father?
2. What’s the relationship between the girl and the family? In other words, how does the girl’s story relate to the family’s?
3. What’s the meaning of the ending (the girl sleeps on a park bench; her luggage floats in a pond; the father retrieves it; stands in front of a ferris wheel—wheel of time/reincarnation?)
4. How do you read the son? mother? girl? father?

David Ehrenst​ein

over 4 years ago

I love Tsai’s work but I don’t regard the action in his films as necessarily symbolic of anything. He has said the “The 400 Blows” was a defining experience for him, so in some ways the entire film is built around a trip to Paris in order to meet, and film, Jean-Pierre Leaud.

And like all of Tsai’s films it’s alove note to his star — and boyfriend.

Jazzalo​ha

over 4 years ago

I can’t believe those things are central to the film—i.e., what gives it meaning and value. If so, I think the film stinks.

I have to believe the clocks are significant in the film. The son keeps changing the time; he’s banging the clock on the railing; he steals a clock and that big guy steals it back. If that’s not symbolic, what do those things mean? How do these elements relate to the “trip to Paris to meet and film Jean-Pierre Leaud?” How does it serve the purposes of his love letter?

Btw, I don’t mean to be curmudgeonly, but I just don’t find that response very satisfying.

Col. Dax

over 4 years ago

Tsai Ming-liang’s films constitute a piece in a whole, more than any other filmmaker working today, I think. It’s a lot harder to understand Tsai’s point when you see his films out of order. I sort of had the same reaction (What Time is it There? was my first Tsai film); I didn’t really know what to make of what I saw but enjoyed it enough to see more of his work and each subsequent film furthered my understanding of both the film I just saw and the film(s) I saw before it.

Anyway, I must ask; what have you seen from Tsai Ming-liang, Jazzaloha? It will be easier to explain what is symbolically specific to What Time is it There? and what is more part of Tsai’s overal concerns as a filmmaker.

David Ehrenst​ein

over 4 years ago

My favorite is “I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone.”

Jazzalo​ha

over 4 years ago

Dax,

Like you, this was my first film (and only) by Tsai MIng-Liang. Do you recommend seeing all his films in chronological order, or can you pick several to see (in chronological order)?

Col. Dax

over 4 years ago

In terms of subject matter, or how he approaches his films, all of them seem kind of similar, but there is a break between The River (or his first three films) and The Hole (or his next three films). His first three films deal with specifically human problems. The problems his characters face are specifically explainable.

In his first film (Rebels of the Neon God_) we see someone’s apartment is flooded this is because of a clog in a drain. In his third film (_The River) there is also a leak in an apartment; this is later fully explained (no spoilers, though). In The Hole there is yet another flooded apartment, but this time it is never explained; we hear that there is something wrong with the pipes, but we never find out what. What this means in the context of the films, symbolically, is normally the same thing; thirst, our inability to quench our thirst in the modern world with human contact. But what it means in the broader context of Tsai’s work is a switch between the everyday, and the unexplainable.

My point being Rebels of the Neon God, Vive L’Amour, and The River don’t have the spiritual, otherworldly concerns of The Hole, What Time is it There?, and Goodbye, Dragon Inn. In The Hole you have a virus that literally turns you into something less than human, in What Time is it There? you have themes about reincarnation (the mother’s loneliness, and fanatic religion, and the last scene), and in Goodbye, Dragon Inn you have discussions of ghosts, and appearances of ghosts.

I don’t know if any of that makes sense; I suspect it doesn’t, but I’m just saying that I see a very clear break between Tsai’s first three films and his next three. I can’t say about his next three films after that (The Wayward Cloud, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, and Visage ) because I have only seen I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone.

My advice would be to see either Goodbye, Dragon Inn, and/or The Hole and then move onto Tsai’s first three films (preferably in order) and then tackle his last three works.

If we want to talk about What Time is it There? we can now (now that I’ve sort of discussed how I feel about the nature of Tsai’s work). There are many critical analysis’ on the internet that will probably shed more light on this film than I ever could, and I will certainly link to them, but I still really want to discuss this particular film.

Jazzalo​ha

over 4 years ago

Dax,

Your remarks are interesting, but I don’t know if it helps clarify What time is it There?—although what you seem makes me feel like watching some of his other films would help me understand his work better.

I don’t think I’m up to watching all of his stuff at this point. What if watch the films you think are similar to WTIIT (The Hole, Goodbye, Dragon Inn)? Would you recommend that?

Col. Dax

over 4 years ago

First off:
What Time is it There?

In some sense this article sort of backs up what Ehrenstein was initially saying, but expounds much more on it.

My personal interpretation of the clocks are specifically representative of longing. In a world of very impersonal relationships Hsiao-Kang attaches himself to a person immediately after his father’s passing. He is in an extremely vulnerable state and this woman treats him with a respect and kindness unseen in normal day-to-day life. The only thing he knows about this woman is she is going to Paris and needed a watch, thus the changing the clocks back seven hours to Paris time is his only way to manifest his longing, and loneliness.

The ending is a bit more difficult to pin-down. It’s a new direction in Tsai’s films; ghosts, and the influence for that is somewhat explained in the article. I think it’s up to your own interpretation, really. There are inklings of ghostly apparitions appearing throughout the film (there is actual a shot very early in the film where a door opens (or closes; my memory is fuzzy) completely on its own, and as the article points out the first shot could be just Miao Tien as a ghost calling for his son), but that is the first true moment in which we are face to face with a ghost. The easiest interpretation is one of a Buddhist reading, but I think it’s completely personal.

Mike Spence

over 4 years ago

I see how the slowness of the film suggests that something symbolic is going on but I think the clocks and watches in the film represent the same thing my watch represents, a preoccupation with time. Potentially symbolic items exist everywhere in the real world but sometimes a stop sign is just a stop sign. Tsai has very little in common, from what i’ve seen, with someone like David Lynch. Despite the slow beauty his films seem very earthbound to me.
There is some use of masks in John Cassavetes Shadows that can be seen as symbols a hidden nature but, while Cassavetes and Tsai are vastly different in style I think they both makes film about experience, not interpretation.

Col. Dax

over 4 years ago

There are specifically symbolic things in Tsai’s work, though, Mike.

The most obvious present in almost every film, in some context, is water. If water is just water in Tsai’s work than it just suggests tons of bad pipes in Taiwan, but if there is a symbolic underpinning to it then it means Tsai is looking further than just purely recording daily life.

His work after The Hole specifically suggest something other than earthbound forces controlling things. The most obvious being the virus in The Hole, and the ghosts in What Time is it There?, and Goodbye, Dragon Inn. If one reads those things as purely earthbound then all three of the films are unfocused, placid, and messy, but if the virus is something more than just a virus, if these ghosts are something more than just ghosts that pop up and leave then the films achieve something more than just randomness.

Tsai’s first three films I see as wholly earthbound, but there is something more (not necessarily better; The River, and Vive L’Amour are my favourite films by him) to his films after that point.

Robert W Peabody III

over 4 years ago

More than simply time in general, the film compellingly thematizes temporal dysphoria, most obviously in the structuring preoccupation of both Hsiao Kang and the film itself with the time difference between Taipei and Paris. The subject is raised initially in Shiang Chyi’s passionate desire to possess Hsiao Kang’s own dual-time watch, and develops through Hsaio Kang’s compulsive turning-back of various clocks and watches to Paris time – perhaps mirroring the film’s own self-reflexive desire to “turn back time” in order to re-inhabit the lost moment of the nouvelle vague. Temporal confusion occurs, too, in the mysterious adjustment of the time on the clock in Hsiao Kang and his mother’s apartment (was it Hsiao Kang, or was it really the spirit of his father changing the clock to reflect “his time” in the afterlife?), which leads to Hsiao Kang’s mother reconfiguring the temporal organization of their days and nights to accord with her dead husband’s time.

Now I have a term for how I felt about this film: Temporal dysphoria
dysphoria:refers only to a condition of mood and may be experienced in response to ordinary life events
Temporality is a term often used in philosophy in talking about the way time is.

The article DAX provided is pretty good and I think she nails it. Unfortunately it is way outside the frame – or is it?

Much of what she says is in the film, but her POV is that of Taiwanese cinema history.

Mike Spence

over 4 years ago

I have not seen The Hole but with Goodbye Dragon Inn I still think he is more interested in exploring time than in any concrete meaning to the ghosts. I think he uses the simple notion of nostalgia for the past as a springboard to show how slowly time sometimes passes. Not to say that his films couldn’t be open for interpretation, i just think that’s the wrong way to approach them.

Col. Dax

over 4 years ago

Well, that reading is not purely earthbound, then. There is indeed symbolism present in the film, then. And your interpretation (which is indeed an interpretation of the film) is one I wholly agree with.

I’m not saying Tsai Ming-liang is Tarkovsky, or Parajanov but there are elements he leaves open in his films, even if the vast, vast majority of the films are more explorations into modern day alienation than anything else.

Mike Spence

over 4 years ago

Agreed

Robert W Peabody III

over 4 years ago

I tried to excerpt things that were in the film, but left a few from outside the film because they were good.
I liked the concept of Temporal Dysphoria and when she said intense subjective pathos and melancholia that accompanies such a self-perception.

The film worked for me, although I wasn’t able to articulate why.Going outside-the-frame helped reinforce my intial feelings about the film.

The European Undead: Tsai Ming-liang’sTemporal Dysphoria
by Fran Martin

Taiwan-based director Tsai Ming-liang’s most recent film, What Time Is It There? (2001) is similarly preoccupied with ghosts and haunting. In the first scene, we see Miao Tien, playing the father of Hsiao Kang (Lee Kang-sheng), sitting down with a plate of dumplings and vainly calling Hsiao Kang to eat. In the next scene, Hsiao Kang sits in the back of a car with the funerary urn containing his dead father’s ashes balanced on his knee. When the car passes through a tunnel he reminds his father’s spirit to keep flying along above the vehicle to rejoin them at the other end of the tunnel (and Hsiao Kang’s unruffled assumption that his father is hanging about in spectral form perhaps causes us to wonder: was it, in fact, already his father’s ghost that we saw in the first scene?). Recalling the earnest everyday supernaturalists of the Liaozhai TV show, Hsiao Kang’s mother (Lu Yi-ching) attempts to induce her dead husband’s spirit to return to the family’s apartment through a series of increasingly elaborate measures. These begin with the standard provision of fruit and incense on the household altar, and progress to the offer of magic yin-yang water prepared by a Buddhist priest; the exclusion of daylight by means of blankets and paper fixed over windows (since, as she claims, “he’s afraid of the light”); invitations for the spirit to sit down to a meal of roast duck with herself and Hsiao Kang; the reorganization of daily routine in order to live by “your father’s time,” to which the living-room clock has mysteriously been switched; and finally, the provision of a romantic candle-lit dinner for two, followed by sex.
Hsiao Kang works as an itinerant watch vendor on the street. Soon after his father’s death, Shiang Chyi (Chen Shiang Chyi), a young woman about to take a trip to Paris, turns up at Hsiao Kang’s stand and demands to buy Hsiao Kang’s own dual-time watch. At first he refuses to sell it to her, but he later relents, and Shiang Chyi buys the watch and takes it with her to Paris. The film’s middle section is composed of cross-cuts between Shiang Chyi’s lonely sojourn in Paris, Hsiao Kang’s days at the watch-stand and sleepless nights at home in his dark bedroom, and Hsiao Kang’s mother’s escalating obsession with the return of her dead husband’s spirit. Hsiao Kang develops a parallel obsession of his own, with the distant Shiang Chyi. This obsession takes the form of a compulsion to turn the clocks around him back seven hours to Paris time, as well as a fascination with all things French, including the films of François Truffaut and French wine, both of which he consumes with interest. Meanwhile, in a Paris café, Shiang Chyi meets a woman from Hong Kong (Cecilia Yip). The two share a bed at the woman’s hotel, where Shiang Chyi tentatively kisses the other woman, who reacts ambivalently. This ambiguous sex scene is intercut with two others: Hsiao Kang in his car in a Taipei laneway having sex with a female prostitute; and his mother at home in an erotic encounter with what can only be her dead husband’s ghost, embodied in a cane headrest with which she masturbates. At dawn in Taipei, the prostitute leaves Hsiao Kang’s car, carting away his case of watches. At dawn in Paris, Shiang Chyi leaves the other woman’s hotel, taking her own suitcase to a park, where she sits on a bench, cries for a little while, then falls asleep. Children steal her suitcase, then set it afloat in the lake beside which she sleeps. The case floats across the screen in front of the oblivious Shiang Chyi, until finally it is fished out of the water by none other than Hsiao Kang’s father, who carefully sets it down before walking away from the camera toward a large, gently rotating ferris wheel.
Even more than Tsai’s previous films, What Time is an intentionally reflexive and overtly intertextual film: a film that is self-consciously about the subject of cinema itself and, as I will argue, especially about cinema history in a global frame.
Comparably, in What Time, at the video stall where Hsiao Kang buys a copy of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, we overhear another customer asking for films starring Grace Chang, Yu Ming, or Lin Dai. This double citation of European art film, on the one hand, and popular Taiwan and Hong Kong cinema, on the other, demonstrates that cinematic citation in Tsai’s films is in itself a complex, hybrid practice, rather than any simple emulation of European film modernism.
Nonetheless, Taiwan cinema since the 1980s has undeniably been marked by the shadowy presence of earlier European film, most obviously at the level of film form and style. The preference of the Taiwanese directors for long takes, static framing, and departures from classical narrative form sees commentators on the films of Taiwan New Cinema directors Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang, and more recently also Tsai himself, routinely invoking the names of Italian Neo-realist, French New Wave, and New German Cinema auteurs: Antonioni, Bresson, Truffaut, Fassbinder. In What Time, Tsai’s cinema’s relationship with its European predecessors is made very explicit: fixated on Shiang Chyi in Paris, Hsiao Kang buys a pirate video of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) – Tsai’s own favorite film – and we watch Hsiao Kang watching the sequence in which Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Antoine rides on the fairground gravitron machine. Later, the scene where little Antoine steals the bottle of milk takes over Tsai’s frame as we watch Truffaut’s film from Hsiao Kang’s point of view. In Paris, Shiang Chyi even meets the now-elderly Léaud, played by himself, while wandering in a cemetery
I
Tsai’s own stance on the nouvelle vague and other European art cinemas, as he expresses it here, is a straightforwardly modernist one: he enthuses over the greatness of the art, and expresses hopes that he might aspire to make films of comparable artistic value. I want to read What Time’s thematization of the relations between European and Taiwan cinemas in a rather different way than Tsai’s own comments imply, since I think this film in fact suggests something more complex about the historical and ideological relations between European and Taiwan film cultures.
Temporal dysphoria
In different ways, Johannes Fabian and Homi Bhabha have both criticized the tenacious developmentalist teleology that they respectively argue undergirds and enables the discipline of anthropology, and the project of European modernity itself. Bhabha develops his critique of “postcolonial belatedness” based on Frantz Fanon’s writing. In his autobiographical reminiscences as a black Martinican arriving in France in the 1940s, Fanon’s writing makes all too clear the strange and destructive subjective consequences of interpellation as a “belated” colonial subject. Fanon famously and compellingly ventriloquizes the statement implicitly directed to him by French culture: “You come too late, much too late.” The modernist teleology of development and “progress” that both Fabian and Bhabha critique, in their different ways, produces a (post)colonial temporality according to which the present “there,” in the non-west, is the pre-history of “here,” in the west, and the future “there” is projected as approximating the past or the present “here.” Bhabha’s notion of the postcolonial time-lag, and the subjective dysphoria that it can produce in subjects interpellated as belated finds an interesting, refracted echo in the thematics of What Time.
The figure of the ghost, discussed above, relates closely to the other central theme of Tsai’s film: that of time, and more particularly temporal confusion, since the ghost’s uncanniness arises precisely from its simultaneous manifestation of both the past (the time in which the dead person was alive) and the future (the afterlife) within the present. Tsai’s predilection for obtrusively long takes means that all of his films have in this sense foregrounded their own temporal organization at a formal level, but What Time intensifies this preoccupation through a diegesis, mise en scène, and soundscape obsessed with representations of timekeeping. Hsiao Kang divides his time between his watch stall near Taipei Railway Station and the clock shop where he picks up his merchandise, and his escalating compulsion to turn all the clocks around him backward seven hours to Paris time means that his non-working hours, too, are organized around clocks. Clock faces figure prominently in the film’s mise en scène: in the clock shop scenes, the frame is crowded with them, and they also maintain an emphatic presence throughout the film. Inside the railway station, Hsiao Kang rests overlooked by two large, digital clocks; later, he sneaks into what seems to be a clock repair room, a peculiar space that suggests a metaphorical reading as a kind of temporal nerve-centre – “Time Central” – where Hsiao Kang creeps about excitedly among numerous digital clocks in various stages of dismemberment. Finally, Hsiao Kang makes a determined attempt to turn back the time on a gargantuan clock on the exterior of a downtown building, opposite the Far Eastern Department Store which is surmounted – incongruously, yet also with peculiar aptness – by a flagpole flying the tricoleur. Hsiao Kang is even “flashed” by a man in the toilets of a cinema, who, in place of his own flesh, reveals an outsize wall-clock that Hsiao Kang had previously removed, whose erect hands now waggle suggestively at 12:00. These scenes in the cinema situate Hsiao Kang’s and the other man’s fetishistic stealing, manipulation, exchange and display of the wall-clock explicitly in the context of cinema technology and culture – for example with the beam of silver light flickering between projector and screen as Hsiao Kang sits in the cinema adjusting the stolen clock, and the raked rows of seating seen behind him. In this way, these scenes link the film’s two central subjects: cinema itself, and time. The film’s soundscape, as well, is filled with clock-related noises: the obtrusive electronic beeping of alarm clocks in the clock shop; the mechanical clack of the elements of a digital clock in the clock repair room.
More than simply time in general, the film compellingly thematizes temporal dysphoria, most obviously in the structuring preoccupation of both Hsiao Kang and the film itself with the time difference between Taipei and Paris. The subject is raised initially in Shiang Chyi’s passionate desire to possess Hsiao Kang’s own dual-time watch, and develops through Hsaio Kang’s compulsive turning-back of various clocks and watches to Paris time – perhaps mirroring the film’s own self-reflexive desire to “turn back time” in order to re-inhabit the lost moment of the nouvelle vague. Temporal confusion occurs, too, in the mysterious adjustment of the time on the clock in Hsiao Kang and his mother’s apartment (was it Hsiao Kang, or was it really the spirit of his father changing the clock to reflect “his time” in the afterlife?), which leads to Hsiao Kang’s mother reconfiguring the temporal organization of their days and nights to accord with her dead husband’s time.
The sequencing of scenes at this point in the film is very suggestive in its articulation of the film’s central preoccupations. A scene in which Hsiao Kang squats in his bedroom, obsessively altering the time on each of the watches in his merchandise case, one by one, to Paris time, is followed by a street scene with Hsiao Kang at a video/VCD stall requesting French films about Paris. After the store owner recommends Hiroshima, Mon Amour and The 400 Blows, the film cuts to Hsiao Kang at home in his room, watching the gravitron scene in the latter film with rapt attention. The next shot is from Hsiao Kang’s apartment’s living room, as Hsiao Kang’s mother calls him out to witness the miracle of the altered time on the wall-clock – changed, she assumes, by her dead husband’s returning spirit. Next, we see Shiang Chyi cowering in bed in Paris as mysterious, insistent footsteps sound overhead. Notable in this sequence is the paralleling of the three themes of disjunctive time (Hsiao Kang’s altering of the watches; the changed time on the living room clock), haunting (Hsiao Kang’s father’s spirit and the disembodied footsteps in Shiang Chyi’s Paris hostel), and Truffaut’s cinema. The scene where Hsiao Kang lies bathed in the flickering blue light of his TV screen, caught in motionless fascination by Truffaut’s film, crystallizes the sense of yearning for a mythic “France” that permeates the film as a whole, and underlines the affective force exerted by this ardently imagined European object of desire. Further, the juxtaposition of this scene with two scenes that centre explicitly on ghosts implies a parallel between the ghost theme and the dream of France. More precisely, I would argue that this sequencing works as a synecdoche of the effect of film as a whole, in that it intimates that the yearned-for Europe of the imagination may effect a psychic haunting every bit as strange and compelling as the more literal haunting by spectres of the dead.
As I suggested above, the film’s central preoccupation with the temporal disjuncture between Taipei and Paris produces an uncomfortable sense, both in the film’s characters and in the spectator, of temporal dysphoria. This central theme of “time-sickness” crystallizes very suggestively in the question that is the film’s title: “What time is it there?” “What time is it there?” implies “What time is it here?” and, perhaps most urgently, “What is the relationship between the time of here and the time of there?” – questions that most obviously evoke the instantaneous telephonic communication of contemporary global culture, but may also index Taiwan’s cultural postcoloniality and the attendant snarls of questions about time, development, and geopolitics. With its thematic focus on the temporal dysphoria generated between the Taiwanese characters and their dream of an imagined Europe, the film seems to intimate that far from vanishing altogether in the present, the old ingrained conceptual frameworks for imagining the world as divided into east and west; periphery and centre continue today to produce the dysphoric subjective effects of postcolonial time-lag. But I want to suggest, below, that while the film registers the effects of the tenacious Europhilia of Taiwan’s postcolonial artistic and intellectual cultures, it does so with a suggestive ambivalence. As much as it re-inscribes this Europhilia, What Time also finishes by gesturing toward its transformation and displacement.
Cinematic recycling
With its loving attention to Truffaut’s 400 Blows and the yearning trajectory its diegesis describes between Taiwan and France, What Time could be interpreted as shoring up a teleological imaginary in which the present and future of Taiwan film can only be found in the past of European cinema. On that reading, the film would simply instantiate the postcolonial time-lag in which the modern is always elsewhere. Equally, however, I think the film can be seen as problematizing its own westward trajectory, insofar as ultimately, as much as it appears as the locus of the characters’ and the film’s own desire, Paris is also figured, precisely, as the land of the dead, when it turns out, in the final scene, to be the place of residence of Hsiao Kang’s deceased father.
The idea that Paris may, in some sense, represent the land of the dead is related explicitly to the film’s meditation on Truffaut’s cinema in the sequence with Shiang Chyi in the cemetery. In one scene, we watch Shiang Chyi standing transfixed beside an ornate tomb, decorated with a stone sculpture of a human figure lying face-down on the slab. Shiang Chyi stands gazing at the stone figure, framed by an immobile camera, for about 50 seconds, the slight movements of her head and eyes highlighting by contrast the figure’s deathly stillness. The film then cuts to another long shot with two figures: a bench in the same cemetery, with gravestones and crosses making up the background, where a rather seedy-looking Jean-Pierre Léaud sits as Shiang Chyi enters the frame and begins rummaging energetically through her backpack. Léaud becomes minimally animated to watch the woman, exchange a few words, and offer her his phone number, but the rhyme with the previous shot is undeniable: once again Shiang Chyi is the more animated of the two figures in frame, and by this logic Léaud is paralleled with the stone tomb sculpture of the previous shot: angel of death. Interestingly, then, through the appearance of Hsiao Kang’s dead father in Paris and the alignment of Léaud with the tomb sculpture, an association is made between France and the nouvelle vague – not with notions of futurity and progress, but on the contrary, with impressions of ghostliness and death.
What Time concludes with a characteristically striking yet enigmatic shot: we watch Hsiao Kang’s father walk slowly into the distance in the pearly light of the Paris park, toward a giant ferris wheel that begins, gently, to rotate. The arresting image of the ferris wheel – a transfiguration of the image of the clock-face that has dominated the film up to this point – seems symbolic in at least two, interrelated ways which, read alongside one other, relate back to the film’s reflexive meditation on the anachronous relationship between contemporary Taiwanese and past European cinemas. First, the ferris wheel recalls the spinning gravitron on which little Antoine rides in The 400 Blows, in the scene that Hsiao Kang watched in his room, earlier in the film. In

………..Tsai’s statements …………….like the epigraph at the beginning of this paper, they evoke not only a sense of Tsai’s self-perceived belatedness in relation to his beloved nouvelle vague, but also the intense subjective pathos and melancholia that accompanies such a self-perception. Tsai arrives 20 years after Truffaut, and the one thing that links them is now long vanished, like Léaud who mistook the time, assumed Tsai was late, and left only his drained coffee cup in the café where they were supposed to meet. In the quote above, it seems that The 400 Blows is Tsai’s favorite film precisely because it indexes this melancholic relation: it is as if Tsai’s passion for Truffaut is partly a passion for his own ineluctable belatedness.
And yet in another sense, the vanishing of the spinning gravitron makes way, in the final shot of What Time, for the appearance of the rotating ferris wheel. The second association of the ferris wheel – particularly given Hsiao Kang’s dead father’s progress toward its spinning form – is with the Buddhist notion of the “wheel of rebirth,” which sees the soul reincarnated in new form after each death until the cycle can be broken and nirvana achieved. Characteristically, then, with the progress of Hsiao Kang’s father toward an unknown future incarnation as he approaches the giant wheel, this film ends with a cryptic gesture toward an as yet unimagined time of future possibility. Given the overt reflexivity of the film as a whole, it is tempting to read this final, markedly non-European symbol of cosmic “recycling” as bearing also on the question of Taiwan cinema within world film culture. Truffaut’s vanished gravitron is displaced by Tsai’s ferris-wheel of rebirth: the ghosts of European art film are reincarnated in a new, uncannily familiar yet also distinctly different cinema. As when our look is sutured into he look of an itinerant Taipei street vendor watching Truffaut’s 1959 film at the start of a new century, this film challenges us to re-see the familiar and find in this altered perspective the glimmer of newness. Gesturing toward a transforming relation between East Asia and “the west” – a relation whose contours are yet to emerge fully – What Time recycles its own belatedness to project a cinematic imaginary proper to the particular time-sickness of the present.

Dr Fran Martin is Lecturer in Cinema Studies at La Trobe University, Australia.

Jazzalo​ha

over 4 years ago

The article Robert printed makes some interesting points—points I don’t think I would have gotten no matter how long and hard I thought about this film—e.g. the love of France and French films, specifically. I realize that the son becomes interested in Truffault, but I had no idea that that was Tsai’s favorite film. I think this ambivalent admiration for France—if true—is a key part of understanding this film. So, thanks.

I have to say that some of the writing in the above drive me batty.

Mike,

So how do you read the son’s obession with the clocks? I mean, that’s not an everyday kind of thing, and it seems to happen after his father’s death. The fact that the girl takes the watch (which the son warns her may be cursed) and then seems to be haunted by the father’s spirit also is not really a normal, every day thing. These things seem to cry out for some interpretation (being symbolic of something), rather than taking them at face value. Also: the guy who takes the clock back from the son and appears out of the bathroom stall with the clock cover his genitals. What the heck?

Mike Spence

over 4 years ago

I think it’s as simple as “after his father’s death he becomes obsessed with time” the way many of us do. If I thought there was any real lynchian type symbolism behind it I wouldn’t like it so much:)

David Ehrenst​ein

over 4 years ago

Tsai’s films are indeed glacially paced by “mainstream” standards. But once you get with them they’re quite seduction.

The full-press cinematic attention he lavishes on Lee Kang-sheng makes Godard’s treatment of Anna Karina seem almost indifferent by comparasion. Unless you understand this there’s no way you’ll understand Tsai. He’s a very important gay filmmaker.

Robert W Peabody III

over 4 years ago

Jazz:

It is a film about film makers, specifically where they are in time. French film is referenced by clips of 400 Blows in the film – the problem is that one would have to know that film to get the references. On a higher level the film works once you have the keys to unlock it.
I like that it works on a higher level, even though I didn’t know that while watching. I saw it as Mike Spence is saying – a guy obsessed with being at the same time as his acquaintance in Paris. That was important because a piece of his personal history was there in Paris with her.
Without knowing all the out-of-frame historical references, there is something in the way in which the elements of the film transmit feelings about time e.g. how is one able to move forward with the past haunting the present?

….life as plot-less narrative

Robert W Peabody III

over 4 years ago

Jazz; the guy who takes the clock back from the son and appears out of the bathroom stall with the clock cover his genitals. What the heck?

Ehrenst​ein: He’s a very important gay filmmaker.

Time for gay cinema?

lollollollollol

Jazzalo​ha

over 4 years ago

Yuck, yuck. Actually, that’s not bad. :)

DownByL​aw

almost 4 years ago

See if anybody wants to revive this thread.

That Fran Martin piece was interesting, and in particular it was good to learn how conversant the Taiwanese arts crowd is with the French nouvelle vague. But I’m not sure that I’m all that taken with reading the film as about international film cultures and colonial time lags. I thought her observation about Paris being presented as a place of the dead was far more useful in thinking about the film.

I’ve been thinking about questions not unlike Jazz’s above. One thing I keep coming back to is the scene with the dead father at the end. Besides that stunningly beautiful final shot, I was taken by the whole ending from the girl on the bench through to the end. In particular, I had taken the mother’s crack-up as just a result of her inability to cope with her grief. She took the changed time on her household clock to be a sign from her dead husband—a supernatural act, but us viewers knew that the son had been going around changing the time on dozens of clocks, so we had a more pedestrian explanation. Did the husband in Paris change your understanding of the wife? And of the son changing the clocks?

I’ve also been mulling over the juxtaposition of the sex scenes and their elements. The mother masturbates with a small suitcase like object; the son’s suitcase of watches is stolen by the hooker while he sleeps; the girl’s sex act seems to have been aborted and she leaves with her suitcase only to have it stolen later while she sleeps in the park. The father retrieves her case. Lots tangled up here. Any thoughts?

Robert W Peabody III

almost 4 years ago

Time, sex, loss, cycles

DownByL​aw

almost 4 years ago

Well some sort of a Buddhist perspective of cycles of suffering through sex, birth, death is certainly one way to consider the film. But somehow I feel that these characters experience an isolation and loneliness that isn’t just existential—that connection is possible if maybe extremely difficult in the contemporary world. But I haven’t quite hashed out why I want to read the film that way.

House 0f Leaves

-moderator-
over 3 years ago

Shiang-chyi is going on a trip. Father says so.

And the big wheel keeps on turnin.

Brilliant.

Uli Cain, Cinefidel¹³

over 3 years ago