Sunday, April 06, 2008

What Time is it There?

I just finished watching "What Time is it There?" by Tsai Ming-Liang. As a general response, I thought the movie was pretty good. I was engaged and invested the whole way. There are a few things in particular that I am excited about in it, that I wish to discuss:

First of all, the film features stellar performances from non-actors. The woman who plays the mother in the film is the owner and operator of a small cafe in Taiwan, and has played the mother in all of Ming-Liang's films. There wasn't a single crack in the veneer of her character or performance, and her emotional moments were nothing shy of amazingly real. In particular, one scene struck me as ringing extremely true, and yet it was thoroughly simple. In the scene, she harps on a fish in a tank, finally talking to it as if it were her dead husband. Her words are few, and the emotion is exorbitantly powerful. Her simple line, "It's so hard," is heartbreaking.

Another key feature of this film is its lack of dialog. Long stints of verbal silence govern the film, regardless of what is happening. Sexual explorations, experimentations, and indiscretions, as well as eating, resetting giant clocks in city squares to the wrong time, and a chubby naked stranger in a bathroom stall holding a clock over his penis: these are all occurrences that are unaccompanied by dialog, which is stunning. What is even more stunning is that the level of engagement I had with the film was completely unimpacted by the fact that no one was talking for easily an hour, save perhaps for a line or two. This is a true testament for any filmmaker. In my own filmmaking I consistently explore things like this; how little can I show, how little can I give, how long can I look at something (Ming-Liang also features very long takes), and not lose my audience? So it is always gratifying for me to see feature films tackling the same issues, and tackling them successfully (another filmmaker who pursues these interests is my personal favorite: Apitchatpong Weerasethakul) Ming-Liang describes himself as an observer, and the actors as NOT performing. I share and respect these views which make themselves pleasurably apparent in the film

Finally, more as a point of novelty than anything else, the film features a cameo by Jean-Pierre Leaud, who plays the main character of Truffaut's "400 Blows," a film featured in "What Time is it There," becoming a point of both irony and intrigue.

Ultimately, Tsai Ming-Liang appears to display no pretensions whatsoever but, rather, appears a humble man interested in watching actors and characters live truthfully in the simple realities of the worlds he does little to create or affect. Despite the weight of the issues and concerns it tackles or addresses, the film seems light as air and, like a wisp of smoke, lifts easily when the film ends.

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