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Still Austere, but With a Little Dark Humor

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the past decade, Tsai Ming-Liang has made five features that have contributed to making the Taiwanese cinema among the most venturesome and challenging in the world today. All five have surfaced locally in festivals and film series, with the second, “Vive l’Amour,” receiving a brief run. “What Time Is It There?” is Tsai’s latest and marks a change in tone for the director.

Tsai’s films are studies of loneliness and isolation set in Taipei, which has become a modern, impersonal metropolis in a nation that has undergone wrenching social changes with rapid economic expansion and the end of martial law.

Those who have not seen any of Tsai’s previous films, all of which are austere and demanding, would be surprised to know that “What Time” is actually his lightest work, its open ending offering a ray of hope. The dark absurdist humor that runs through Tsai’s films is stronger here than in any of his previous pictures.

“What Time” cuts among three individuals: a young street vendor, Hsiao Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng), who sells watches near a train station in the bustling heart of Taipei; his recently widowed mother (Lu Yi-Cheng), whose grief over the loss of her husband swiftly grows into an obsessive yearning for his return in spirit; and Shiang-Chyi (Chen Shiang-Chyi), who buys a watch from Hsiao before taking off for a vacation in Paris.

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Not only does Shiang-Chyi want a watch that offers dual times, so she will always know what time it is in Taipei when she is in Paris, she wants the very one Hsiao happens to be wearing. He resists selling it to her because he feels to do so would somehow bring him bad luck because of his father’s recent death.

When he gets her one like it, she rewards him with some pastry. That Shiang-Chyi proves to be thoughtful as well as pretty captures Hsiao’s heart before he realizes it.

The next thing we know, he’s setting all his dual-time watches set to Paris and Taipei time, and then he sets as many clocks around the city as possible to Paris time, at one point even going to the top of a tall building with a long stick to maneuver the giant hands of a clock near the top of one of its high walls.

As Hsiao grows mildly obsessive, his mother becomes positively demented, following all the rituals of the ancient religious and folkloric beliefs said to attract the spirits of the deceased; loneliness and isolation giving way to obsession is typical of Tsai’s people.

Shiang-Chyi settles into a tiny room in a noisy Paris hotel, repeatedly making unsuccessful phone calls and rummaging in her purse for a slip of paper with a phone number on it, suggesting that she has gone to the City of Light hoping to connect with someone, possibly a former lover. Of the world’s great cities, Paris may well be the least friendly, and Shiang-Chyi becomes aimless as loneliness overcomes her.

Only another Chinese woman (Cecilia Yip) and Jean-Pierre Leaud, whose youthful self is seen in a video of “The 400 Hundred Blows” that Hsiao buys, offer Shiang-Chyi kindness and concern. (Leaud and Shiang-Chyi, who does not recognize him, briefly share a bench in a cemetery.)

Despite his homage to Francois Truffaut, Tsai is actually more influenced by Robert Bresson, for his people, like those of Bresson, are in search of spiritual redemption. And like the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, Tsai favors a stationary camera, which has the effect of flooding the screen with the emotions his people are experiencing.

The formality and grace that Tsai and his cinematographer, France’s masterly Benoit Delhomme, bring to “What Time” provide a splendid contrast to the feeling of often humorous spontaneity that runs throughout the film, an effect heightened by the unself-conscious naturalism of Tsai’s actors. So assured is Tsai as a filmmaker that he pulls off a lovely sleight of hand at his film’s climax as skillfully as Michelangelo Antonioni pulled off a similar maneuver in “Blow-Up.”

With the release of “What Time Is It There?” and the news that Tsai’s masterpiece, “The River” (1997), has at last been picked up by an American distributor, there is reason to hope that more Taiwanese films will be surfacing in theaters, allowing wider audiences to discover a flowering cinema that has captivated critics at festivals for 10 years.

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Unrated. Times guidelines: some sex, complex adult themes.

‘What Time Is It There?’

Lee Kang-Sheng...Hsiao Kang

Chen Shiang-Chyi...Shiang-Chyi

Lu Yi-Ching...Mother

Jean-Pierre Leaud...Man in the cemetery

A Wellspring Media release. Director Tsai Ming-Liang. Producer Bruno Pesery. Screenplay by Tsai in collaboration with Yang Pi-Ying. Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme. Editor Chen Sheng-Chang. Production designer Yip Kam Tim. In Taiwanese and French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes.

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Exclusively at the Nuart through Thursday, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379; and University 6, Campus Drive across from UCI, Irvine, (949) 854-8811.


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