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What Time Is It There?

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Like few directors since Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang orchestrates minute variations on a theme, recycling the same actors, settings, motifs, and meticulous visual style from one feature to the next. In general terms, his movies could all be described as funny and sad meditations on urban anomie, with long takes and static compositions that might seem dull if they weren't so alive with intense melancholy or uproarious deadpan comedy. Tsai's latest, What Time Is It There?, runs his usual themes and obsessions through a whimsical premise worthy of Wong Kar-Wai, striking such an exquisite balance between humor and despair that the moods comfortably coexist, just as they do in real life. With his near-inscrutable Buster Keaton face, Tsai alter-ego Lee Kang-sheng stars as an only son in the same incommunicative family unit from 1992's Rebels Of The Neon God and 1997's The River. (All three films were also shot in the actor's apartment.) When his father (Miao Tien) dies, Lee and mother Lu Yi-Ching participate in Buddhist mourning rituals together, but otherwise cope with their profound grief separately and alone, crossing paths only out of routine obligation. As Lu fastidiously prepares for her husband's reincarnation—her refusal to kill even a scurrying cockroach leads to the film's funniest sight gag—Lee returns to his job as a watch vendor on the streets of Taipei. One afternoon, a young woman (Chen Shiang-Chyi) insists on buying a dual-time watch off his wrist for her trip to Paris, and he eventually relents, despite his superstitious belief that it will bring bad luck to them both. His feelings for the watch, tied to his anguish over his absent father and perhaps a hint of longing for its new owner, quietly compels him to reset every clock in the city to Paris time. Tsai has always exercised impressive control over his effects, but with What Time Is It There?, his universe connects together so precisely and elegantly that at times it can only be described as magical. Rather than explain away his characters in dialogue, Tsai's camera chronicles their behavior in purely visual terms, showing an affinity with silent movies that's underlined in a glorious homage to Harold Lloyd. Like countryman Edward Yang's recent masterpiece Yi Yi, What Time Is It There? is a deeply sympathetic treatment of alienated people that reveals their distance from each other while finding simple and poetic ways to rhyme their experiences. In bridging the gap between lonely characters incapable of doing so themselves, both films are unfailingly generous and achingly bittersweet.