I am not a religious man. However, during
the screening of Tsai Ming-Liang’s latest film, What
Time is it There, I began to pray. I prayed for the roof
to cave in, for the screen to catch fire, for a crazed gunman
to burst in and pepper the room with gunfire. I prayed for
anything to happen that would distract me from the mind-numbingly
boring movie that I was sitting through at the moment. You
may be thinking that I’m, shall we say, overreacting a bit.
Well, let’s break it down.
Here’s the plot: Hsiao Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng) is a
watch vendor on the streets of Taipei, Taiwan. His father
has just died, and his mother (Lu Yi-Ching) is freaking
out, desperately clinging to the idea that her husband will
return in spirit form. Life, in essence, is not full of sunshine
and roses. While on the job, Kang has a brief encounter with
Shiang-Chyi (Chen Shiang-Chyi) where he sells her a
watch, and she tells him she’s moving to Paris. Unable to
cope with his mother going bat-shit, he begins to obsess over
this shared moment with a stranger, manifesting his longing
by setting all the clocks he can find to Paris time. Now,
as far as plots go, it’s not terrible, I’ll give it that.
I think that with a better director, I could have actually
enjoyed seeing a movie that contained the above storyline.
The movie gets into trouble with its execution, overseen by
director Tsai Ming-Liang.
Ming-Liang is the most self-indulgent, misguided, you’ll-love-it-because-it’s-ART
director I’ve seen in a long time. To give you an idea of
what we’re looking at, let’s analyze a few scenes of the movie:
Scene 1: A man smokes for three or four minutes. End of
Scene 2: A man sits in his car and eats for three or four
minutes. End of Scene.
Scene 3: A woman stares off into space and cries a little
for at least five minutes. END OF SCENE!
The whole film is riddled with this. In fact, there are
no camera movements in the entire run of the film. It consists
solely of static shots that last for a minimum or two and
a maximum of six or seven minutes, most of the time containing
nothing more than a person lying in bed or standing on a street
corner. Now, I know that some people see this as a “bold,
artistic choice” and, granted, it is pretty bold to have almost
zero action in your movie. However, I subscribe to the school
of thought that states that a movie must have at least something
in it to hold the audiences attention or it officially becomes
a waste of everyone’s time.
And what’s even more frustrating about What Time is it
There is the fact that, as I stated above, the plot really
had the potential to be entertaining. In particular, the plotline
about the mother stubbornly waiting for the return of her
dead husband’s spirit really grabbed me. However, when things
would start to get interesting, when I thought Ming-Liang
had finally stopped dicking around and cut to the plot, he’d
switch to another in the long line of one-shots of a character
drinking tea. In my book, sacrificing a film’s plot in order
to make room for more of your own artistic masturbation is
one of the bigger cinematic sins a director can commit.
I can tell you now that my opinion on this movie will not
be a popular one. Ming-Liang has made a film that is, if nothing
else, tailored directly to critics everywhere who live and
die by the “Long + Foreign + Boring = Masterpiece” equation.
Hell, I don’t know. Maybe What Time is it There is
a brilliant masterpiece that will reshape the landscape of
modern cinema, and I’m just too much of a hillbilly to understand
it. When others watch this, they may see a golden example
of a true artist. Personally, all I see here is a director
so full of his own “vision,” he forgot to turn off the camera.
And again, I pray that there are others who see this too.