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.