Let It Flow 

Tsai Ming-Liang’s cinema of tears and laughter

Wednesday, Jan 16 2002

The Taiwanese film What Time Is It There? is awash in the effluents of everyday life -- the piss, the puke and especially the tears. Directed by Tsai Ming-Liang, whose work generally flows and at times even gushes with wet emotion (there‘s a reason his 1996 drama is titled The River), the new film takes raw grief as its point of departure only to play out as a comedy of deadpan heartbreak. For Tsai, melodrama -- that most excessive, extravagant of genres -- has been an extraordinarily eloquent means by which to articulate the unspoken, the hidden and the repressed, especially in a culture in which feelings tend to be stuffed, not released. But for the 43-year-old Tsai, whose aesthetic is as informed by the golden age of Hollywood and the European art film as anything that’s ever come out of Asia, melodrama is never the final stop. In his 1994 feature, Vive l‘Amour, one of the great neglected films of the 1990s, a woman weeps on-camera for seven-plus interminable minutes, a virtuosic feat that begins as an expression of pure tragedy only to veer into absurdist comedy and end up, as do many of the director’s films, somewhere in between.

What Time Is It There? oscillates even more abruptly between pathos and comedy, a restlessness of mood that‘s matched by geographic jitters that take the story back and forth from Taipei to Paris. When the film opens, an old man (Miao Tien) sits in the shadows smoking a cigarette; by the next scene, he is dead, leaving his wife (Lu Yi-Ching) and adult son, Hsiao Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng), a watch vendor, haunted by grief. Theirs is a profound mourning which, as days gather into weeks, accentuates their isolation and eccentricity. The Mother (she has no other name) begins to believe that her husband may have come back reincarnated in some other form, and admonishes Hsiao Kang not to kill a cockroach because, well, you never know. (She’s ridiculous, but when she strokes an aquarium, weeping endearments to a glorious white fish, she‘s also heartbreaking.) During the night, the son takes to pissing in containers (an empty soda bottle, a plastic bag), afraid to leave the safety of his room because of the phantoms, real or imagined, haunting the family apartment. Sealed inside their own miseries, mother and son barely exchange a word with each other, a silence that’s somewhat broken when Hsiao Kang meets a young woman, Shiang-Chyi (Chen Shiang-Chyi), who‘s off to vacation in Paris.

It’s a measure of Tsai‘s sly, understated wit that the romance between Hsiao Kang and Shiang-Chyi slow-blooms while the two are in separate countries and may indeed be entirely one-sided. After she buys a watch from him and slips off to a crushingly lonely, unwelcoming Paris, he tries to set back what seems like every clock in Taipei; if he can’t be in the same space, he can at least enter her time zone. It‘s a wildly romantic gesture made all the more poignant by the fact that the man expressing it will probably never actually share the French wine he drinks alone on a Taipei roof. (As with many of Tsai’s characters, she is somehow more present, and surely more desirable, when she‘s not around.) Although what all this adds up to isn’t much different from what we‘ve seen in the director’s earlier work, there‘s also an unexpected looseness in What Time Is It There?, an easing of both tone and style that suggests Tsai is stretching out in new ways, even if he’s not breaking new ground. His characters are still not doing much talking (at least to one another) and feel the aloneness of life just as deeply. Yet while the tears continue to flow freely, the hand drying them now seems somehow more gentle.

Related Stories

Related Content

Now Showing

  1. Wed 9
  2. Thu 10
  3. Fri 11
  4. Sat 12
  5. Sun 13
  6. Mon 14
  7. Tue 15

    Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

    Sponsored by Fandor

Box Office

Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, concert and dining info & more!

Around The Web


  • 10 Movies You Should See This Summer
    The phrase "summer movies" will never not mean broad, action-driven crowd-pleasers to me: I counted the days until Batman (June 23, 1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (July 3, 1991), and Jurassic Park (June 11, 1993) were released. For every Dark Knight there are 10 Prometheuses — and that's just among the films that are actually trying to be good — but the hype and anticipation of summer movies remains a fun spectator sport. (More fun than sports, anyway.) Here, 10 from Memorial Day weekend and after for which I have, as the song says, high hopes. By Chris Klimek
  • Doc Docs: 8 Powerful Medical Documentaries
    Code Black is the latest in a string of powerful documentaries examining the domestic health care system's flaws and profiling its physicians, caretakers and patients. In this film -- which will be released in select theaters on June 20 -- the cameras are pointed at the nation's busiest emergency room, that of L.A. County Hospital. Here are seven moving medical docs. Click on the film name to read the full review.

    See also:
    35 Music Documentaries Worth Seeing

    15 Documentaries That Help You Understand the World Right Now
  • Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel in Lego
    A Lego replica of The Grand Budapest Hotel was unveiled this past Saturday, June 14, by builder Ryan Ziegelbauer and star of the film Tony Revolori at The Grove in L.A. Ziegelbaur and his team built the 7-foot, 150-pound structure from over 50,000 Lego bricks. The celebration was held in honor of the Blu-Ray and DVD release of Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel on June 17th by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. All photos by Mary Bove.

Movie Trailers

View all movie trailers >>

Now Trending