24 Frames: What Time Is It There?

Once streaming video overtook physical media as the primary way to watch movies at home (or (god forbid) on your smartphone), it was no longer unreasonable to think that everything could be available at the touch of a button whether via paid subscription services like Netflix and The Criterion Channel, free-with-ads platforms such as Tubi or FreeVee or not-entirely-legal uploads to YouTube, Vimeo and a horde of other websites. While finally sounding the death knell for movie rental and retail stores, streaming didn’t entirely solve that availability problem. Sure, one no longer had to rely on whether your local Blockbuster had a DVD (or if you’re of a certain age, a VHS tape) of a particular title in stock but easy access is not the same as having access to everything. Twenty-odd years ago, I kept a mental running list of movies to see that either weren’t ever released on home video, out of print, unavailable in the US (i.e. on a format other than NTSC such as PAL) or extremely difficult to find, hoping they would become available to rent and/or buy one day. Off the top of my head, it included John Cassavetes’ final feature Love Streams, Abbas Kiarostami’s Where Is My Friend’s House (and the rest of the Koker Trilogy) and most of Theo Angelopoulos’ work prior to 1989’s Landscapes In The Mist; I still recall the glee and satisfaction with which I purchased my newly-released Criterion Blu-ray of Love Streams in 2014.

A little accessibility breeds expectations for its continuation and advancement. We’ve progressed from an age where you couldn’t own any movies to one where you could rent and/or buy some of them to another teeming with available content. This ability to watch an increasing number of titles whenever you wanted threw into relief the relatively minor amount that you couldn’t. If I could see movie A for free, why not movie B? If I had to pay to see movie B, why wasn’t movie C available at all, even for a price? No matter how far we’ve come in the rough half-century since the invention of the VCR, we are nowhere near this idea of utopian unlimited access even if what we do have presents enough content and choices that most viewers could never possibly run out of stuff to watch.

The casual viewer, on the other hand, may take for granted the current streaming unavailability of titles from Academy Award Best Picture winners (Rebecca) to cult films (Gummo, the original Dawn of the Dead) and even beloved box office hits (Cocoon, for christ’s sake!) In this project, I’ve already tackled titles that I had to access via my own DVD copy (All That Jazz) or on YouTube (To Live). As for What Time Is It There? (2001) by Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang, I’m thankful I held on to the DVD I purchased at a video store’s going-out-of-business sale fifteen years ago since, in addition to currently being unstreamable, the DVD is also long out of print (a better-than-acceptable used copy sells for at least $50 on Amazon), never released on Blu-ray and not uploaded to YouTube (unlike Head or the original version of The Heartbreak Kid, both of which I’ve recently watched on the platform.)

Tsai’s feature debut Rebels Of The Neon God arrived in 1992 but I’d not heard of him (not even in film school) until a decade later. In anticipation of What Time Is It There?, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, then under the expertise of programmer Bo Smith, ran a retrospective of his work. Not knowing too much about Tsai apart from rave reviews of the new film, I chose to start at the beginning. Rebels Of The Neon God concerns a young Taipei man (Lee Kang-sheng, who serves as the protagonist/muse in nearly all the director’s work) who falls in with two juvenile delinquents—a setup straight out of early Godard or a contemporary like Gregg Araki. Unlike those two auteurs, Tsai is far less interested in narrative than texture and atmosphere. Actually, this first feature has relatively more plot than most of his subsequent efforts, although specific themes and motifs one would see throughout his oeuvre are already in place: urban life, loneliness, food, sex and, perhaps more so than any other auteur, water in all of its forms (and sounds.)

Rebels Of The Neon God

I detected similarity but also a great advance between Rebels Of The Neon God and What Time Is It There? and viewed his other three features to date within the next few months: Vive L’Amour (1994), an advance over its predecessor while further eschewing such elements as “plot” or having a score, even; The River (1997) of which What Time Is It There? might be loosely interpreted as a sequel; and The Hole (1998), something of an outlier in that it interrupts Tsai’s usual urban ennui with the occasional colorful and deliberately campy (and overtly lip-synched) musical number. I’ve revisited most of these in the past few years (save The River, also unstreamable/out of print) and can detect a developmental through line of Tsai becoming progressively more minimal and sparser (save the occasional musical, like 2005’s The Wayward Cloud) with each film.

As a caveat, Tsai’s movies are not for everyone. I once likened his unique and deliberate approach to that of silent-era slapstick only slooooowed all the way down as much as possible before turning into complete stasis or a freeze-frame. While one of the chief devotees of what could be called “slow” cinema (along with Andrei Tarkovsky and Bela Tarr), things do happen in his films, often recognizable activities that we partake of offscreen: eating, sleeping, fucking, selling wares, watching movies, sitting in a public space, etc. And yet, most other filmmakers do not give these ordinary actions such raptly held attention or focus. Stray Dogs (2013), for instance contains an infamous shot of one of its characters in close-up meticulously eating a chicken dinner for what seems like infinity—an extreme example in Tsai’s filmography for sure, but not an atypical one (especially in his later work.)

Revisiting What Time Is It There? for the first time in nearly two decades, even I took some time to fully adjust to its unusual rhythms. It begins with a seemingly endless single shot of Lee’s aged father (Miao Tien) in his apartment. He slowly sits down at a kitchen table, lights a cigarette, stands up, calls out “Kang!”, sits back down, gets up again and walks down a hallway to a laundry room at the far rear of the frame. As usual with Tsai, the camera remains entirely static. It feels almost as unassuming as a Warhol screen test or a piece of stock footage nearly resembling Ed Wood’s silent B-reel of Bela Lugosi leaving his house that was inserted into Plan 9 From Outer Space to make good on the notion that the now-deceased actor “starred” in the film.

In the next scene, Lee rides in the backseat of a car with a veiled object sitting upright in his lap. He says, “Dad, we’re going through the tunnel; you have to follow us, okay?”, although we see no other passengers. Those familiar with Buddhist customs will recognize the object as his father’s urn and the other things he’s holding onto as traditional implements of bereavement. For those who are not (like me), the following scene at a mausoleum clarifies his dad’s death. From that moment, What Time Is It There? establishes itself as a film partially about grief and the different ways its characters process it. Lee’s mother expresses it forthright: per her faith, she fervently believes her husband will return in another form such as one of her pet fish housed in aquarium that Tsai often places towards the front of the frame. She’s increasingly superstitious about his return, laying out food at the dinner table for him to consume and later obsessively covering up all the windows and cutting the electricity because “he prefers the dark” (even though, as her son argues with her, the fish will die in their tank without power.)

Lee’s approach to mourning is more difficult to parse. The persona Tsai crafts for him throughout the director’s oeuvre is that of a stone-faced onlooker, like a more passive Buster Keaton (perhaps without the acrobatic comic timing.) Initially, his grief doesn’t seem outwardly apparent at all except through quirky acts of behavior such as repeatedly urinating into a plastic bag or a water bottle in his bedroom rather than using the bathroom (no concrete reason is given for this as far as I can determine.) He makes his living selling wristwatches, often standing on the street with a giant open suitcase of his merchandise, repeatedly and almost robotically banging a single watch against the metal railing behind him to draw attention. After much haggling with a young woman (Chen Shiang-chyi) over his personal wristwatch (which belonged to his father), he agrees to sell her it after she discloses she’s about to take a trip to Paris.

From there, the film alternates scenes of Lee in Taipei with those of Chen in Paris with the watch serving as a psychic connection between the two. Lee seems to believe his father’s spirit partially remains within the watch and obsesses over it and the country Chen has taken it to. He calls Information to ask the film’s titular question (re: Paris) and buys and repeatedly views a bootleg copy of The 400 Blows, Francois Truffaut’s landmark 1959 French New Wave film. Meanwhile, Chen wanders around Paris alone, an outsider in a land where she doesn’t speak the language. At one point, Tsai frames her on a busy moving walkway as the only figure standing still. Later, at a cemetery, she sits down a bench next to a middle-aged man who happens to be Jean Pierre-Leaud (the child star of The 400 Blows), though this fact is lost on her.

Jean-Pierre Leaud and Chen Shiang-chyi

Time itself becomes a motif. In addition to Lee’s profession as a street watch salesperson and the brick-and-mortar clock store that employs him, various timepieces appear throughout the film. In one sequence, he steals a clock right off the wall of a cinema’s hallway, placing it on the seat next to him inside a theater (what the stocky, bespectacled young man silently pursuing Lee does with that clock after he steals it from him leads to one of the film’s funniest sight gags.) In another scene, he sits in what appears to be a mall at a fountain which contains a giant water wheel forever unhurriedly revolving like a clock. Later, he ends up in some sort of room (maybe a security booth?) with a menagerie of clocks both analog and digital and later still, on the balcony of a tall building manually trying to adjust (with long tongs) the hands of the clock below him on its façade.

Tsai often sidesteps Taipei’s more traditional, tourism-friendly urban landscapes for liminal spaces such as that security booth packed with clocks or the backseat of a parked, possibly abandoned car. Chen’s Parisian vacation is full of these as well: endless subway corridors and platforms, a phonebooth where with futility she attempts a conversation as a man in the adjacent booth keeps yelling obscenities into his receiver, a miniscule, red-tiled bathroom where she vomits up her dinner. Tsai renders worlds as they are (unglamorous, run-down, often grime-encased) but does so within artful, meticulously composed frames. His lengthy, static shots begin to feel like living paintings—for those receptive to such stillness, it can be like sitting on a bench or standing next to a wall, simply observing life play out before one’s own eyes no matter how little (or how much) action occurs.

Combined with a heightened sound design which doesn’t have a musical score but emphasizes such ambience as traffic noise and trickling water, What Time Is It There? invites one to extensively take in an environment rather than lose oneself in a story—which is not to say it’s all just visual and aural wallpaper. The film slowly reaches its climax as all three of its principal characters engage in some sort of sexual activity. Chen attempts a one-night stand with a female traveler from Hong Kong who walked in on her vomiting in the red-tiled bathroom; Lee fucks a female prostitute who stumbles by him as he’s camped out in the abandoned car drinking wine and eating some sort of meat on a stick; Lee’s mother, meanwhile, puts on a fancy dress at home and, for lack of a better term, “gets intimate” with the urn full of her husband’s ashes.

None of these encounters have a particularly happy ending (so to speak.) Chen fails to find much of a connection with the Hong Kong woman and leaves the hotel disappointed. The prostitute absconds with Lee’s suitcase of wristwatches, sneaking away before he awakens. When he arrives home, Lee finds his mother in bed holding the urn, unresponsive. She’s obscured by camera to a degree where it’s indeterminable whether she’s dead or just sleeping—Lee just silently climbs into the bed, embraces her and that’s the last we see of either of them. However, the film concludes in Paris. As Chen falls asleep on a lounge chair in a park next to a lagoon, a familiar suitcase last seen escaping an abandoned vehicle floats by her only to be retrieved from the water with an umbrella handle held by a man whom the camera gradually pans up to reveal as Lee’s father. He walks away from the lagoon with the suitcase in hand; standing and facing the camera, Tsai reveals a giant Ferris wheel behind him: it’s another clock-like figure, perhaps the grandest one so far. Lee’s dad turns around and walks beatifically in its direction. The screen turns to black with the director’s dedication, “To my father and Lee Kang-sheng’s father.”

This is a film not just concerned with time as a concept but also as an experience and how it is fleeting and, for us as individuals, finite. Tidy as its recurring, symmetrical imagery is, its rigor, combined with its minimalist, understated, almost meditative demeanor renders What Time Is It There? one of Tsai’s most accomplished, satisfying and original works. So, twenty years on, why is it difficult to see? One can currently stream his follow-up (and arguably far more challenging) feature Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003), along with later efforts such as Stray Dogs and Days (2020). Quality and critical acclaim, however, are rarely decisive factors in regard to availability. Both the theatrical and home video distributors for What Time Is It There? are long defunct and have been acquired by other corporations. It’s unclear who currently holds the rights to the film which is most likely the reason why one can’t stream, rent or even buy it for a reasonable price. Perhaps in another year or five, a reputable distributor such as Criterion will acquire them (as they did with Love Streams) and audiences will rediscover the film. It happened to What Happened Was… (1994), a long-lost indie hit of its time that received a theatrical re-release a few years ago and eventually made its way to streaming platforms despite never having been released on DVD. For now, What Time Is It There? remains but one of many currently “lost” titles that we can only hope will find a new audience when it can be easily seen again.

Essay #14 of 24 Frames.

Go back to #13: The Royal Tenenbaums.

Favorite Directors

Most years, my film group conducts a poll amongst its members. In the past, we’ve determined our all-time favorite films of a particular genre (horror, documentary, animation) or other categorical distinction (remakes and sequels, foreign language, black-and-white.) For the first time, this year’s list is centered on people rather than films. One would think it a breeze to curate a list of just 25 or 50 directors; my original long list ended up past the 150-mark. We were allowed to include up to 100, which is what my ballot below has. The first 30 or so are the most important; the placement of almost anyone beneath is a little more arbitrary.

In curating my list, I thought about whom I’d most like to see on the group’s list which is chiefly why Agnes Varda ended up at #3 – French, female, equally adept at documentary and fiction, she’s the sort of revered talent (that might not necessarily be a household name) that the group was created to promote and highlight. I also wanted to talk up my favorite LGBT directors which accounts for half of my top ten. My first draft placed the ever-dependable, ever-unique Tsai Ming-liang at top but in the end, I couldn’t deny giving it to the artist I wrote my Master’s thesis in Film Studies on.

The thing with all-time-best-of lists is that they could credibly go on for days. What favorite filmmakers of yours missing from the 100 below would you have included?

  1. Derek Jarman
  2. Tsai Ming-liang
  3. Agnes Varda
  4. Paul Thomas Anderson
  5. Wes Anderson
  6. Robert Altman
  7. Apichatpong Weerasethakul
  8. David Lynch
  9. Todd Haynes
  10. Pedro Almodovar
  11. Michael Powell
  12. Guy Maddin
  13. Mike Leigh
  14. Atom Egoyan
  15. Claire Denis
  16. Hirokazu Kore-eda
  17. Sarah Polley
  18. Yasujiro Ozu
  19. Terence Davies
  20. Celine Sciamma
  21. Wong Kar-wai
  22. Rainer Werner Fassbinder
  23. Alfonso Cuaron
  24. Richard Linklater
  25. John Cassavetes
  26. Jane Campion
  27. Martin Scorsese
  28. Chris Marker
  29. Kelly Reichardt
  30. Zhang Yimou
  31. Joanna Hogg
  32. Andrey Zvyagintsev
  33. Jonathan Demme
  34. Werner Herzog
  35. Bob Fosse
  36. Abbas Kiarostami
  37. Andrea Arnold
  38. Spike Lee
  39. Jacques Tati
  40. Bong Joon-ho
  41. Edward Yang
  42. Joel Coen
  43. Andrei Tarkovsky
  44. Douglas Sirk
  45. Jean-Pierre Melville
  46. Hou Hsaio-hsien
  47. Michael Haneke
  48. Maya Deren
  49. Hayao Miyazaki
  50. Orson Welles
  51. Albert Maysles
  52. Jean-Luc Godard
  53. Michelangelo Antonioni
  54. Jim Jarmusch
  55. Kogonada
  56. Andrew Haigh
  57. Lee Chang-dong
  58. John Waters
  59. Jafar Panahi
  60. Buster Keaton
  61. Frederick Wiseman
  62. F.W. Murnau
  63. Nicholas Ray
  64. Sofia Coppola
  65. Joachim Trier
  66. Alfred Hitchcock
  67. Jean Renoir
  68. Ingmar Bergman
  69. Yorgos Lanthimos
  70. Krzysztof Kieslowski
  71. Whit Stillman
  72. Wiebke von Carolsfeld
  73. Xavier Dolan
  74. Fernando Eimbcke
  75. Marielle Heller
  76. Olivier Assayas
  77. Jia Zhangke
  78. Andrew Bujalski
  79. Josh and Benny Safdie
  80. Peter Strickland
  81. Lynne Ramsay
  82. Miranda July
  83. Roy Andersson
  84. Woody Allen
  85. Francis Ford Coppola
  86. Alexander Payne
  87. Leos Carax
  88. Robert Bresson
  89. Francois Truffaut
  90. Debra Granik
  91. Satoshi Kon
  92. Greta Gerwig
  93. Billy Wilder
  94. Preston Sturges
  95. David Cronenberg
  96. Ernst Lubitsch
  97. Stanley Kubrick
  98. Nicole Holofcener
  99. Howard Hawks
  100. Nuri Bilge Ceylan


Tsai Ming-liang’s a filmmaker who tends to make the same kind of picture over and over, like Yasujiro Ozu (to name one of his precursors) or Hong Sang-Soo (a contemporary.) This isn’t a deterrent, for nearly three decades after his feature debut (1992’s Rebels of the Neon God), he’s still unearthing inspiration in such long standing obsessions as loneliness, urban life, food, sex and, more so than perhaps any other auteur, water in all of its forms.

Since the anomalous erotic (!) musical The Wayward Cloud (2005), his work has seemingly turned more minimalist with each effort. His latest sports the disclaimer, “This film is intentionally un-subtitled”, which led me to expect even less action than his last narrative feature, Stray Dogs (2013), which had its share of endless long takes of people staring at a wall or eating a rotisserie chicken. Not that Days does a 180 on its predecessor, for it opens with another lengthy, static shot of Tsai’s long-running, now middle-aged protagonist Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) sitting and blankly staring into space over a steady rain.

Actually, quite a lot happens in the film; it just does so at a snail’s pace, occasionally approaching the repetitious style of classic structuralist cinema. When the film’s other character, the younger Non (Anong Houngheuangsy) spends ample time preparing his dinner, meticulously washing his lettuce and fish multiple times, it feels like a direct homage to the rituals incessantly enacted in real time throughout Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman… (1975).

Individual scenes with Kang or Non make up the film’s first half; a little more than midway through, the two men come together in a long sequence that most viewers will decidedly not find boring. Afterwards, we see them apart again until the final shot fades to white. Again, a deliberate structure, even if Tsai claims he pretty much made the film up as he went along, working without a screenplay (there’s so little dialogue that the subtitles aren’t missed.)

Viewers unfamiliar with or unreceptive to Tsai’s work may think, “Huh?” at all this; his devotees might also initially arrive at that conclusion, at least initially. While not as masterful as, say, What Time Is It There? (2001), given time to absorb and ponder Days, I grew to appreciate it far more. It’s a quiet and often gentle film, running through those same, ongoing obsessions I mentioned above; fortunately, they don’t yet feel stale or superfluous. Like any master of minimalism, Tsai’s still adept at taking the same puzzle pieces and rearranging them into (if ever so slightly) distinct configurations that at best inspire one to look at the familiar with fresh eyes.