It's a bit of a tic among cinephiles to label filmmakers “auteurs of x“, where x is whatever theme, mood or sensibility of which said auteur has made a habit. Ming-liang Tsai is a common target. With his spare casts of isolated characters spending so much of their time in the frame alone and longing, is he “the auteur of urban alienation”? Is he “the auteur of the moment”, focusing with the utmost patience and stillness on the subtlest human actions? Is he more of an auteur of base bodily functions, throwing around scenes of masturbation, urination and awkward sex with grimy abandon?
This no doubt conjures a bizarre mental image in the mind of the reader without experience of Tsai's films, but do rest assured that they're not quite that weird. Puzzlement, however, is far from an unheard-of a reaction. 2001's What Time is it There? appears to have provoked the same questions as its predecessors — “Why are the characters doing that?”, “Why do things look that way?”, “What's going on?” — but it does so with expertise honed over nearly a decade of cinematic experience. It's the pinnacle of a loose quadrilogy, also comprising 1992's Rebels of a Neon God, 1994's Vive l'Amour, 1997's The River and 1998's The Hole, wherein Tsai employs a stable core of actors, places them in many of the same Taipei locations and expresses their attempts, usually ill-faited, at connection.
At the heart of the movies is Kang-sheng Lee, a nonprofessional actor Tsai happened upon while casting his first feature. Never has the director's enthusiasm for mixing the trained and the untrained been more profitable than when Lee's self-styled mannerisms and methods of reaction interact with his castmates'. “In his own world” would be a tired description; “on his own plane of existence” is more apt. Words fail to describe exactly what's different about his acting style — perhaps it's more of a “being style” — but it becomes immediately clear after viewing any of his scenes why Tsai would want to repeatedly cast the fellow in such central roles. He's got something, and that something definitely didn't come from a workshop.
Here, Lee takes his recurrent Tsai character name, Hsiao-kang. Whether he's the same Hsiao-kang that appears in The River, The Hole and Vive l'Amour remains a matter of open debate, though his father is played by the usual fellow as well. Not for long, though; just a few shots in, Dad's already dead and cremated, his ashes gripped by Hsiao-kang, who urges his father's spirit to keep on flying alongside his car as it passes through a tunnel. Wearing the deceased man's watch, Hsiao-kang resumes his daily existence supported by timepieces sold out of a suitcase on a skybridge. He manages to close a sale with Shiang-chyi, a student on her way to Paris, but does so only reluctantly; it's his father's watch she wants, capable as it is of displaying two times at once. One for Taiwan, she figures, one for France.
The consequences of these events so matter-of-factly related by Tsai go on to richly complicate matters. Fixated on the idea that her husband's spirit could return home at any moment, Hsiao-kang's mom desperately pursues every fleeting impulse telling her what the ghost might find comfortable. (Father is afraid of the light, she explains to her son, taping over the windows.) Though slightly dubious about these endless measures taken to accommodate the supernatural, Hsiao-kang is also nevertheless wary of disturbing his father, whose spirit he believes occupies the bathroom. This sets the stage for the intersection of several Tsai conventions: the eerie isolation of Hsiao-kang in his room as rain beats on the roof above); the unguarded, truthful moment of his blowing into a nearby plastic bag to inspect it for leaks; the bodily function of urination, into the bag, so as to avoid violating the ghost's nest.
Hsiao-kang finds his mind returning to Shiang-chyi, or at least to her present location. He searches the local bootleg video market for a copy of The 400 Blows. He resets all the clocks he finds to Paris time. (This only feeds Mom's growing preoccupation: insisting that her husband's spirit reset the kitchen clock, she rearranges her day around it, serving dinner at midnight so as, according to her explanation to Hsiao-kang, to “live by your father's time.”) Both Hsiao-kang and his mother grasp at straws, executing any strategy, no matter how oblique, to make some kind of contact with the distant objects of their desire. Half a world away, Shiang-chyi endures a similar struggle, trying and failing to find a gateway into the strange Gallic land that surrounds her. As Hsiao-kang's mother is to Hsiao-kang's father, Hsiao-kang is to Shiang-chyi; as Hsiao-kang is to Shiang-chyi, Shiang-chyi is to France. It's a veritable “missed connections” page, this movie.
But then, missed connections have long sat solidly inside Tsai's thematic wheelhouse. Sometimes they're not even missed; they're simply forbidden. And, worst of all, when they're not missed, they have a tendency to turn out to be forbidden anyway. (Who could forget the fateful unintended meeting of Hsiao-kang and his father in one of The River's cruising saunas?) The characters populating What Time is it There? try hard to connect, but their efforts, from the comissioning of elaborate religious rituals to the attempted absorption of café culture by osmosis, are just misconceived enough not to benefit from force of application. Like Hsiao-kang's father in his attenuated appearance, when the camera captures these people, it usually captures them all by their lonesome.
Fortunately for us, this is an ideal match between a film's substance and a filmmaker's formal skill. Without daring to apply the “auteur of alienation” label myself, I've seen no director working today better equipped to handle actors by themselves than Tsai. He knows how to depict the human alone, which is a task most other filmmakers seem either ill-equipped to meet or totally uninterested in even attempting; surprising, considering how much time filmgoers probably spend alone themselves. One character in Tsai's hands is as engaging as a roomful in another's. The contemplative Shen-chyi set against the noise of Paris; Hsiao-kang staring at the scene in The 400 Blows where Antoine rides the centrifuge; Hsiao-kang's mom making imaginary love to the ghost who's arrival she's been so busily anticipating; the surprise appearance of the least-expected character right at the end, just as nobody's around to see; far from cinematic insufficiency, observing these characters on their own is actually more than enough to handle.
Tsai's steady focus on the individual establishes a contrast that makes interactions between characters, on the rare occasions they happen, loom with significance. As a result, the brief encounter between Shang-chyi and Hsiao-kang takes on almost as much significance for us as it does for him. When Shang-chyi finally does have a couple exchanges of (relative) substance in her travels, it's as impressive that she has them at all as it is that one of them is with the now-middle-aged Jean-Pierre Léaud, star of Hsiao-kang's Truffaut of choice. (Whether Léaud the actor portrays himself or a character conveniently named “Jean-Pierre” is another matter of open debate.)
Whether filming one, two or many more characters, Tsai's eye for the details best conveyed on the small scale and across a length of time never falters. Putting aside the “auteur of the moment” business for, well, a moment, he's more than proven his possession of that rarest of all directorial abilities: to deliver scenes to be experienced by the audience, rather than to serve as wrapping to be removed from the plot point and discarded; to make things happen onscreen, rather than be summarized. His work steers well clear of the deadening “this happened, then this happened because of that, then this happened because of that” storytelling mode of lesser films. Unafraid to use sequences of the length, pacing and control necessary to bring the viewer in on the action, Tsai indeed crafts real moments when others' pictures are content to be their own Cliff's Notes.
What this entire discussion of Tsai's considerable cinematic merits neglects is, as any fan knows, how funny he is. This isn't to do with his affinity for bodily functions, either, or at least not primarily; his work captures human awkwardness so well and so distinctively that it would take an insensate audience indeed not to at least chuckle in recognition. (Other chuckles arise from sheer absurdity, as in an anonymous gay overture that makes hilarious use of Hsiao-kang's clock fixation.) Other critics have tried to set into words Tsai's peculiar genre of humor: Elvis Mitchell calls it “absurdist melodrama”, J. Hoberman calls it “existential slapstick” and Roger Ebert makes much of its indivisible unification of sadness and levity, none without cause. But like the other major facets of his work, Tsai's comedy resists summary: it must either be experienced directly or ignored entirely.
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