Tsai Ming-liang’s film “What time is it there?” is surely about me me me. Rather, I don’t know what else it’s about, as with his other films. Given what a paradoxical feat it is to speak to any audience about unspeakable alienation without alienating them all, it is to be expected that each of his films either bores or impresses each viewer: to understand each film, you need to know already the particular strain of unspeakable alienation it addresses. In case you do, the film speaks to you but doesn’t tell you anything new, except (1) it establishes common knowledge of that strain in the discourse context and (2) it draws analogies to other strains. The common knowledge brings me precious relief, and the analogies bring me poignant sympathy.
If this hypothesis is on the right track, we should make a table that maps films by Tsai to strains of alienation, to guide differently alienated people to different films. In that table, under “What time is it there?”, I would say that it addresses distance in time and space, between the dead and the living. In other words, it is the perfect film for nostalgic, jet-lagged mourners in immigration limbo who are coming to terms with a generation gap. (I suspect there are many such Taiwanese people.) Thus, the film and its three main characters come together precisely when they separately actuate their pinings for inaccessible objects of desire. Like nodes in an overconstrained graph layout problem, we all want different shapes and distances for our physical and emotional manifolds, but can only twist and turn feebly.
Funniest scene: Into the deceased father’s bowl at the dinner table, the mother piles rice and meat and vegetables. Then she tells the son to take his father’s medicine: “不要浪費 Don’t waste it.” In response, the son moves the medicine next to his father’s bowl.