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.