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What Time Is It There? (Tsai Ming-liang) 2002 

Since Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time Is It There? is most obviously obsessed with characters that check their watches and go to the bathroom, it’s a fortunate thing that it clocks in under two hours. Despite its predilection for potty humor, however, it’s an unusually sophisticated, highly intelligent comedy packed with visual puns that warrant comparison to Tati or the best of Altman (notice how much mileage he gets out of liquids in a bottle). For a film without a single pan or zoom of the camera, the direction always seems surprisingly keyed into things. Assumedly, this lack of movement suggests the torpor that the film’s characters are stuck in, so it’s somewhat surprising that things never grow dull. Instead, Tsai spends his time layering the film’s strongest theme (routine is shattered and must reassert itself) by completely fleshing out his three main characters as they attempt to reconnect with their center of being. Because of this specificity, the film feels incredibly dense. There’s not a wasted shot in the entire movie. 

What Time Is It There? won a special technical prize at Cannes for its sound design, and it’s not surprising that such a typically ignored aspect of film production was singled out here. Tsai uses rhythmic noises such as clocks ticking (or better yet the tone made as a character repeatedly smacks his “unbreakable” watch against a pole) or knives chopping to create the pattern that is missing from his characters’ lives. The three main characters each have their lives altered by an outside stimulus (a death, relocation, and a flirtation) that affects them to the degree that it snaps them out of their routine. Suddenly, their nights are filled with insomnia, midnight meals, and inconvenient bathroom runs. In their world out of whack the rules no longer apply. The lines between public and private become blurred as we see urination, belching and vomiting made disturbingly and humorously public. The character that has religion (which is based on routine as much as faith) as a crutch falls hardest when it cannot live up to its promises, but certainly all of them feel rather alienated from each other, no matter whether the connection they long for is across the globe or in the next room.  

Tsai paints a specifically urban sense of disassociation here as blackouts and subway outages seem to suggest a more universal feeling of dislocation from the norm exists. After several unsuccessful attempts, connections begin to be made (notably through doorways at first), and eventually the three stories build to a literal simultaneous narrative orgasm. His thesis becomes abundantly clear as these characters inappropriately, but desperately, attempt to latch onto a carnal instinct, or the memory of it, to snap them back into perspective. The ending, which suggests the cogs that power their routines might begin to spin once more, powerfully suggests those routines might not be much to hang our sense of self on in the first place.  



Jeremy Heilman