Time, death and loneliness are big themes lightly entwined around the characters of the sporadically appealing but badly stretched “What Time Is It Over There?” Pic is the latest in a series of films by Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang that are loosely based on the same family from “Rebels of the Neon God,” “Vive l’Amour” and “The River,” and the familiarity should please helmer’s fans. Others will be faced with two long hours of minimal dialogue and action, in which the main attraction is the low-key humor of Tsai’s glancing style. The French production is likely to cover much the same limited arthouse ground as previous pics, with festivals the most interested parties.
An old man (Miao Tien) sits around a kitchen; by the next shot he is dead. The main mourners, his son Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng) and his wife (Lu Yi-ching), go through the colorful funeral rituals in a few more shots. Although his mother takes very seriously the idea that her husband may be reincarnated, possibly even in a passing cockroach, Hsiao-kang is more skeptical. One day the boy, who sells watches on the street, sells his own dual-face watch to a pretty girl, Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi), on her way to Paris. Their brief meeting obsesses him, and he comically begins changing all the clocks he sees to Paris time. Tsai extends the gag cleverly throughout the film, culminating in Hsiao-kang’s changing the clock face on a huge building, Harold Lloyd-style.
The references to cinema history extend to Paris, where Shiang-chyi, a lonely tourist, crosses paths with Jean-Pierre Leaud in a cemetery. Coincidentally, Hsiao-kang has just bought Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” and watches Leaud perform as a boy. The bizarre connections between the two, separated in space and time, are suggestive of greater forces at work beyond their simple lives.
Echoing Hsiao-kang’s clock obsession is his mother’s reincarnation fixation, which at one point seems to be drawing her into madness. In film’s climactic scenes (which at this pace cover the last half-hour), boy, girl and mother compound their loneliness in sexual acts offering no emotional satisfaction.
The film’s stately, quiet tone is established with carefully fixed frame shots held long enough to allow viewers to leisurely explore each careful composition. Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme’s very refined lighting, often from a single source, is a joy to behold as it bathes Yip Kam-tim’s sets in a play of light and shadows and contrasts the gaudy electronic world of Taiwan with romantic Paris.