Analyzing a foreign film: A look at What Time Is It There?
Analyzing a film.
The foreign film experience is definitely something to behold. Film all over the world can follow a similar construction when it comes to story and plot, sure. But then you have those films that simply break out of the norm and become something so fantastical and so underrated they get missed or forgotten because they weren't talked about when they were released. In this article I will be discussing the film "What Time Is It There?", written and directed by Ming-Laing Tsai and co-written by Pi-Ying Yang, and tells the story of a street vendor selling watching who is changed by one simple interaction with a girl he meets that wants to buy the watch that he's wearing because it tells the time in two time zones so that she knows that time there and in Paris where she is headed.
I rarely come across a movie by accident that I enjoy, but this one is unusual. I read the simple synopsis online and anticipated it might be something a little different and worth a view. I fell in love with this movie. The simple cinematography, the quietness of the characters, and the correlation between how sometimes we can be more aligned with the people we meet in this world than we realize. To me, this film spoke volumes about the loneliness of life, the pain of losing a loved one, and the emptiness that we feel we hardly can't shake. This is a very specific look at what it means to be human.
The fact that as ways had me hooked was that the camera was always placed directly looking at its subject. There were no hand held camera moments, no creative angles or quick movement shots. This film was composed precisely and idiosyncratic to showing each character in their daily life. Showing their most awkward, most vulnerable, most lonely, and most wanted. The camera never moves from its position. It simply analyzes.
It's as if the cameras are set in place because we need to appreciate these exact moments, some with nothing happening, some with significant happening, but there's always a reason for us to comprehend. It gives us enough time with each shot to be particular and spectate the way we need to learn about these characters. This is a movie full of loneliness silence. There are many scenes where nothing is said, interactions are minimal, scenes where the story is being told.
The movie starts with the main character's father sitting in a dark room smoking a cigarette. He is lifeless. Soon after he passes away, leaving behind his son and wife to continue on existing in something that hardly seems even close to a life. They aren't living because they are missing something. They require something. The son does nothing except sit in his room watching his television, not even having enough energy to leave his room to use the bathroom, he fills a water bottle with his urine, then places himself back down. The mother is the same way. Never leaving the house and now attached to their pet fish, Fatty, who she believes now, is the reincarnation of her dead husband.
Things start changing for Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng) after he has his short-lived interaction with Shiang-Chyi (Chen Shiang-Chyi), who purchases the watch from his wrist because she needs it to tell both her home city and Paris time zones. She is stuck in his mind now. We know this because he everywhere he goes in the city he starts changing the clocks to Paris every time, maybe trying to recreate the moment in some way, or maybe to show that the one thing missing from his life is a woman. We have to make our assumptions based of the actions of the characters choices.
Throughout the movie and him doing this, things start to appear like they are becoming synchronized with each character, Hsiao-Keng, his mother, (Lu Yi-Ching), and Shiang-Chyi. We don't understand every interaction, but we are shown bits and pieces slowly over the close to two hour film. Things became so much so in sequence each character builds up to an individual sexual experience. Hsiao-Keng with a hooker, Shiang-Chyi with a stranger She meets at a cafe, and the mother, who we realize, masturbates with the urn of her dead husband's ashes (literally).
Although each character is experiencing something sexual, each has a different interaction. Hsiao with his hooker is what you would expect. Barely a quick and probably regrettable purchase of a woman's love. Shiang finds herself laying with this woman she met at a cafe, staring at her while she lay there in bed, which the woman senses and glances back at her. They embrace each other in a soft kiss, and the woman stops, then lays herself back down. The mother, however, seemed to me the most powerful representation of what the film has been following since the start. It isn't awkward because she's masturbating with her husband's urn. It's miserable because she feels lonely enough to use the urn as a sexual tool, a way to try and be close with him again. It was actually effective.
I will not discuss the ending because if there is a way for you to find this film and watch it, I want you to experience it for yourself. The ending is ambiguous and it surprised me. I believe I have an understanding of the ending, but it was not what I expected at all. There's a lot to think about during watching and after. I was always engaged with the characters, always waiting to see what would happen next. I cared about them. Immediately after watching the film, I reached out to my brother, who has a similar interest in film as me, and asked him to watch it to tell me what he thought about it. He wasn't as interested, saying it was 'odd'.
If you are a fan of foreign film, specifically for this Japanese film, you might recognize film I believe inspired this one. The 1953 Japanese Drama Tokyo Story directed by Yasujiro Ozo, depicted a husband and wife visiting their children in the city that they hardly see. It is an effective drama that shows the lonliness parents can experience that as they get older, their kids want less and less to do with them. He filmed in such a way that never had the camera placed above or below the characters. It was always in the middle of the screen to give us a direct visual on their lives.
For the average movie goes, this would be considered the most boring movie they've ever seen. But for those who understand film, language, and understand the deeper meaning behind the scenes where the camera does not cut, the characters do not talk, and the story seemingly doesn't make sense, you will understand how intricate the film is, and just how important it is to visually imply the loneliness of the world. It affects everyone, and it shows no matter who we are or where we are at in the world, we can be suffering the same as someone else and never ever know it.