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WHAT TIME IS IT THERE?
2001 - Tsai Ming liang
Taiwan / France
62
Opening Shot

What Time Is It There? opens to a static shot which last nearly four minutes without a cut: A man alone (in the middle of the frame) in his kitchen prepares a meal. He brings it towards the table and sits down. Before eating he lights a cigarette. He gets walk back toward the kitchen and calls for his son. He returns to the table to smoking for a bit and then gets up and goes past the kitchen to the outside porch.

The Film

Tsai Ming-liang's 2001, What Time Is It There? is as original, exciting, and beautiful a film can possibly get. As with all of Tsai's films the camera consists of long, extended takes and isolated framing to enhance the alienation of the characters as well as create a claustrophobic atmosphere. There are also many moments of dialogue free silence. Tsai wants the viewer to absorb the film, to participate in it, and emphasize with the characters situations and emotions. It truly creates a challenging and thus a deeply rewarding cinematic experience. There are so many levels, meanings, and recurring themes ranging from separation, loss, loneliness, but it's ultimately about humanities connection and coincidence both with each other and between the living and dead. It's a calm, sometimes humorous, and always poetic film of the human soul's longing for love. The lovely (and mysterious) ending quietly arrives as the three main characters are shown sleeping and alone after having just failed to emotionally or sexually communicate. The final shot can be interpreted several different ways, but ultimately represents one of the films themes (the connection of the dead and living). To me, this film is unbelievably powerful and haunting. It's images beautiful and few films capture loneliness more effectively. Tsai is truly a gifted filmmaker, and this may be his finest masterpiece.

The Filmmaker

One of the truly original master filmmakers of contemporary world cinema is Taiwan's Tsai Ming-liang. Tsai emerged later then his more influential and groundbreaking contemporaries of the New Taiwanese Cinema (Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang) and to date he has made just seven feature films. Each of his films share a distinct quality from anything else in world cinema and places Tsai among the very greatest artists of his generation. Born in Malaysia, Tsai grew up watching films all over the world before studying film at Chinese Culture University in Taiwan. It is here where he gained his influences (most notably Francois Truffaut and especially Michelangelo Antonioni, with his common themes of isolation within landscapes as well as his long, lingering takes). Even in comparison to his influences and his contemporaries, Tsai's films can be considered (for lack of a better word) slow. Not boring and certainly not pretentious, Tsai's films are simply patient and exist as a means of reflection, observation, and experience of his characters lives. Tsai's means of narrative is unique in its unconventional approach. Tsai is a master of portraying alienation and loneliness. Every one of his films has dealt with the theme of loneliness in some form- which is occasionally a symbolic form. All of Tsai's films use the same actors (notably Lee Kang-shen, Chen Shiang-chyi, Lu Yi-Ching, and Tien Miao- who died in 2005). Also his films use repetitive visual symbols and especially water in a variety of ways to metaphorically express the emotional state of the characters. Tsai also uses the human body as metaphoric examinations of desire, loneliness, loss, and longing. His deliberate pacing and isolated characters give his films a bleak atmospheric feeling, yet Tsai very often blends a visual sense of slapstick or dry humor, as well as even some elaborate musical numbers (such is the case with 1998's The Hole and 2005's The Wayward Cloud). Through the visual observation of the metaphors and compositions of his films emerge deeply complex human emotions. This is evident in repeat viewings of all his work but especially in what is to me his greatest achievement: 2001's What Time Is It There? A film that is completely free of unnecessary movement or dialogue that can be interpreted many different ways. Despite the slowness and quietness, it is an exciting cinematic experience that works on many levels (ranging from separation, loss, loneliness, but it's ultimately about humanities connection and coincidence both with each other and between the living and dead.). Tsai's next feature 2003's Goodbye Dragon Inn is another masterpiece achievement in which simplistic filmmaking techniques (notably the use of visual metaphors as expression with almost no dialogue) are employed to define complex layers of emotions. Above all, Tsai is one of cinema's great observers. Like Alfred Hitchcock, his films represent the auteur as an obsessive observer (though it is achieved with a much different style then Hitchcock). Through the use of visual metaphors and human bodies within isolated or changing environments, emerge Tsai trademark theme of loneliness.

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Resources
trailer (youtube)      
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