What Time Is It There?

What Time Is It There? ★★★★★

"Is that you coming back to see me?"

Life is built on a series of rituals. We all have them, whether we would willingly share them or not. Street merchant Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng) has a few, but the most intense one is a compulsive need to switch all the watches and clocks he can find - even on the sides of buildings - to Paris time, driven by his obsession with a customer he met only once, Shiang-chyi (Shiang-chyi Chen). She convinced him to sell her his watch and gave him a cake along with the cash; that gesture was like a key turning a lock inside his heart. It changed him.

We simultaneously follow Shiang-chyi's solitary vacation in France (where she doesn't appear to speak much or any of the language), Hsiao-kang's horological mania and his mother's (Lu Yi-ching) fathomless sorrow at having recently lost her husband (Tien Miao). Mother's prayers for the departed, constant attendance of the mourning shrine and insistent belief that Father's spirit has returned in various animal forms (a pet fish, a cockroach crawling on the kitchen floor) consume her every waking moment; she wasn't ready to become a widow and doesn't know what to do with all her sadness, anger, sexual frustration. It's simultaneously poignant and gently funny as these three people try to fill their individual voids.

In his city, Hsiao-kang tries to adjust to Parisian time, watches The 400 Blows (which is Tsai Ming-liang's favorite film) repeatedly, drinks champagne on a rooftop. Shiang-chyi crosses paths with Jean-Pierre Léaud in the Cimetière de Montmartre, but she doesn't seem to know who he is.

This is a film about loneliness, but also about missed connections. Missed, both in the sense of relationships that will never exist and also lamentation for loved ones who are gone. Sometimes these people are loneliest when they're not alone; they might be sharing the same bed or standing together on a crowded train, but wherever they go, they all crave an intimacy that they can't necessarily articulate, at least not out loud.

The best they - perhaps we, the audience - can hope for is a comforting circularity to the narrative, the truth that maybe we're not as alone as we may think. Someone is looking out for us after all, even if we don't realize it.

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