Mar

31

What to Rent

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In which film savant Iggy Cortez gives you something to watch this weekend when you ask the cute girl from CC to your room to “watch a movie.”

What Time is it There? is Tsai-Ming Liang’s powerful exploration of loneliness and loss, themes he has explored previously in such modern classics as the bleak The River and the poignantly whimsical pseudo-musical The Hole. But while Tsai’s humanist concerns, and his cast of favorite actors, recur in all his movies, each film is inflected with its particular share of symbols and obsessions as to make them wholly independent worlds of their own.

His 2001 film, What Time is it There? is his most ambitious in scope. It follows the emotional journey of street vendor Hsiao Kang, who has recently deposited his father’s ashes at the crematorium, while his mother remains home, gripped by intense and unexpected mourning. He develops an obsession for a young woman who convinces him to sell her his watch before she goes on a trip to Paris. Her deceptively carefree mien, and the romantic idea of Paris she embodies, become an intimation of hope for Hsiao Kang that gradually develops into an obsession with Truffaut’s 400 Blows (as the next best thing to following her to Paris) and for the nature of time. As Hsiao Kang uses his imagination of Paris for escapism, the young woman arrives at Paris where she is lost, achingly lonely and terrorized by her inability to, literally, communicate and, hence, connect.

Through cross-cutting and cleverly staged parallel narratives, Tsai uses time-difference as a metaphor for disjunction – and the emotional barriers between individuals his characters secretly wish would disappear. His camera is often strategically static, lingering on scenes that are poignantly haunting and all-too-recognizably familar, allowing us to catch the botched chances at connections his protagonists miss. In one of the film’s most emblematic scenes, the young woman finds herself awkward and alone in a loud and merry Parisian restaurant. A handsome stranger helps her decide what to order, and while she focuses on the menu she fails to see his curious and sympathetic gaze that suggests he is open to make a connection she achingly desires.

Subtitled 7 to 400 Blows, What Time is it There? is also a wonderful tribute to the French New Wave and its contribution to a cinema of greater emotional authenticity. In a welcomed cameo, Jean Pierre-Leaud (the protagonist of the 400 Blows and something of a poster-child for the period), plays a benevolent stranger Shiang-Chyi randomly encounters. The iconic actor becomes a loaded metaphor: a means to connect the two protagonists, a tribute to Truffaut and an optimistic symbol for how time passes but certain things endure.

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