What Time Is It There? (2001) – movie review

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Movie Review by Alice Castle

Starring: Kang-sheng Lee, Shiang-chyi Chen, Yi-ching Lu, Tien Miao, Cecilia Yip

Director: Tsai Ming-Liang

Following on from THE RIVER and REBELS OF A NEON GOD, Tsai Ming-Liang continues his study of urban alienation. Lee, a wristwatch vendor on the streets of Taipei meets a young woman Chen who unhappy with his wares, asks if she can buy the watch on Lee’s wrist before she heads off to Paris the following day. Having recently lost his father Lee is reluctant to hand over his watch because he fears it will go against Buddhist mourning ritual and bring the young woman bad luck. But Chen won’t take no for an answer and calls him later in the day, insisting as a Christian she’s not bothered by any Buddhist mumbo-jumbo.

Tradition dictates Lee and his mother should refrain from harming any living thing for 49 days and they must also leave food and water out in case the spirit of Lee’s father returns. Despite his youth and modern lifestyle Tsai’s main character Lee is afraid of the ghost and chooses to wee in whatever receptacle he can find rather than risk the darkness of the corridor outside his room to go to the bathroom.

The film then splits narratives following Chen and her existence in Paris. It seems the watch has brought her some kind of bad luck as she ambles in and out of cafes and cemeteries not connecting with anyone nor feeling any real affinity for the place. Meanwhile still focussing on his encounter with Chen, Lee becomes obsessed with the time difference between Taiwan and Paris and sets out to change the time on as many clocks as he can find around the city to European central time.

It’s an interesting film – cool and grey, urban and sensitive in its approach to grief – but not one of Tsai’s finest I think.

3 out of 6 stars