Friday, November 20, 2009

Faces of Tsai Ming-liang: What Time is it There?

As a Taiwanese director whose films have often been French co-productions, Tsai Ming-liang is likely well aware of the seven hour time difference between Taipei and Paris. This fact also becomes significant to a Taiwanese street vendor who compulsively starts setting clocks to Parisian time in Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time is it There? which concludes the Asia Society’s Faces of Tsai Ming-liang retrospective this Saturday.

Tsai stalwart Lee Kang-sheng again returns as the director’s pseudo-alter-ego Hsaio-kang, who now hawks watches on the streets of Taipei. Hsaio-kang’s father has recently passed away and his mother is not coping well. One day, an attractive stranger on her way to Paris offers to buy Hsiao-kang’s own watch. Though he initially refuses, claiming his father’s death would make it “unlucky,” her persistence wears him down. After all, he is a loser and she is a beautiful woman.

Although their connection is fleeting at best, Hsiao becomes preoccupied with the woman now spending a year in the French capitol. Oddly, his obsession manifests itself in a need to set clocks to Parisian time. Meanwhile in Paris, the assertive young woman is suddenly shy and tentative in the foreign land. In a nod to the French New Wave, as Hsiao-kang watches François Truffaut’s 400 Blows, the woman has a brief encounter with its star, Jean-Pierre Léaud in a Parisian cemetery.

Indeed, synchronicity is critical to Time, as when the three principal characters have similar but entirely unrelated experiences late in the film. Time’s ending also seems to deliberately echo that of Tsai’s international breakout film Vive L’Amour, until sly bit of magical realism breaks the pattern. Tsai might be a demanding filmmaker, but he certainly knows how to end a picture.

While Tsai often depicts his characters in uncomfortable private moments, the penchant is especially pronounced in Time, which features instances of auto-eroticism, urination, and vomiting. In truth, these scenes are not graphically rendered—they simply feel voyeuristically intrusive. Yet, there is still a distinctly humanistic quality in Tsai’s work, deeply emphasizing with his characters while examining their suffering in unsparing detail.

Chen Shiang-chyi is quite mesmerizing as the object of Hsiao-kang’s desire. However, Lee Kang-sheng’s weird acting out as Hsaio-kang might be difficult for audiences to relate to if they have not seen some of his past incarnations in earlier Tsai films. Still, the honest directness of Chen’s work can be appreciated by any viewer.

Given the extremely tenuous nature of the relationships in Time and the director’s languid pacing, it is definitely a film for discriminating cineastes. It is still undeniably the work of a genuine auteur, crafting pictures with their own rough beauty. It screens tomorrow (11/21) following The Hole (arguably Tsai’s most accessible picture), as the Asia Society concludes their Faces of Tsai Ming-liang retrospective series.