Liang Captures Urban Alienation

Tsai Ming Liang is a director who refuses to compromise, either with his audience or with himself.

When asked about the scarcity of music and dialogue in his films, he responds thoughtfully by wondering why people don’t ask Hollywood directors why they use so much.

A maverick filmmaker operating out of Taiwan, What Time Is It? is Tsai’s fifth feature film, and one that has garnered much critical acclaim, including an award at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.

This paragon of contemporary cinema came to Harvard on Tuesday to speak at a screening of this 2001 film at the Harvard Film Archive, to a room packed with film enthusiasts. Tsai has a real sense of both the heights and depths of the human condition, and his filmmaking style reflects that.

Rather than having characters who are slaves to the narrative, he creates moments that are reflections of real people. The film is not easy to pin down with a plot summary or character descriptions; suffice it to say that it deals with issues of mourning, loneliness and alienation. Lee is a watch vendor fixated by a woman he meets briefly (and played extraordinarily realistically by Chiang Shiang-Chyi); she is on her way to Paris and wants to buy the watch off his wrist.

This small contact, multiplied by Lee’s angst over his father’s death and his general disengagement with his life, turns into an obsession that culminates in his quixotic quest to change all the clocks in Taipei to Paris time. His mother takes a parallel path, denying the death of her husband, setting food out for him as before and even attempting to recreate other aspects of their relationship. This is not a film to see on a first date, or with an elderly relative.

Tsai’s films often provide bleak and desolate views of modern life, and he has a definite knack for capturing urban alienation in an honest and straightforward manner. Paradoxically, it is clear from his films that Tsai approaches both life and film in a fundamentally joyous manner.

The drops of distilled reality, like the way in which Lee idly swings an alleged “unbreakable” watch against a railing to test it, or the way in Chiang shyly tries to order food in a Parisian cafe as crushingly happy French patrons carouse all around her, are made more significant by the way in which they resonate with real life. These are not jokes written for the approval of a laugh track; they are humorous glimpses into the myriad illogical ways in which we behave.

Tsai also has confidence in his audience; he crafts his films with marathon distances between cuts because he hopes “that the audience will stay with the image long enough to get a real grasp of the emotion.”

Indeed, the care with which Tsai frames the shots in What Time Is It? is often breathtaking, if occasionally frustrating for an audience accustomed to the frantic cuts and fades of music videos and news updates. He says that he spends a huge amount of time looking for the perfect space in which to portray the variously nuanced emotions he seeks, and that he feels that “space is vital to character development, especially the way in which the characters move in the space...I try to view the space as the character would.”

Furthermore, Tsai claims that all his films try to portray the attitudes he has in his own life, and that many autobiographical elements are incorporated into his films. The insecurity and paranoia of Lee and his mother is drawn, Tsai says, from his own experience of losing his father at the age of 30 (he says his own reaction included a fear of leaving his room at night, to the point of urinating in water bottles and plastic bags).

Tsai ends one of his earlier films with a shot of a crowded theater at the end of a show; as the hundreds of people file out they leave a negative space in the room, one that so engrossed Tsai that he kept the cameras rolling “until we ran out of film.” Using different methods, he manages to bring a similar sense of contemplative resolution to What Time Is It?

As a friend of Tsai’s is quoted as saying in a brochure made available at the screening, What Time Is It? ends with “a magical moment in which two continents, two souls and two worlds (this one and the next) converge for one quietly rapturous moment.” Tsai is no stranger to rapturous moments; in fact, with films like this he is solidifying his position as a master of the lingering shades of meaning that meander through life, exhibiting them slowly, so that all can breathe in their atmosphere.