This may be a ghost story. In the modern-day Taiwanese city of Taipei, a young man named Hsiao Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng) lives with his parents and makes money by selling watches on the street. When his father dies, he and his mother (Lu Yi-Ching) are left alone in their small home to grieve and be anxious in their separate ways. Mother believes that the father’s spirit lingers somewhere in their abode and goes so far as to set his favorite dishes at mealtime in front of his now-empty chair. Hsiao, annoyed and more than a little spooked by his mother’s actions, has taken to urinating into plastic bags and empty containers in the middle of the night to avoid running into Dad’s ghost — or at least Mom’s creepy vibes — on the way to the bathroom, and then quickly ducking back into bed, pulling the blanket over his head.
Or it may be a love story. One day while on the job, Hsiao is approached by a young woman named Shiang-Chyi (Chen Shiang-Chyi) who wants to purchase not just any watch but the one he is wearing. She’s going on a trip to Paris, she explains, and she wants his because it tells time in two separate time zones. Hsiao is at first reluctant, telling her it would be an unlucky thing to have since his father has recently died, but she assures him it doesn’t matter since she’s a Christian (the ironic implication being that she’s not superstitious). He sells her the watch and she walks out of his life, but the brief encounter has planted the seeds of a seemingly odd obsession. At first he just seems curious about Paris, renting and watching The 400 Blows again and again, but before long he’s roaming around town randomly resetting clocks to Paris time.
But then it may be neither a ghost story nor a love story. At first one assumes that Hsiao’s clock-resetting binge is motivated by an infatuation with Shiang-Chyi (and some reviewers have left it at that), but it seems more likely that what has been roused in him in his grieving and solitary state is the idea that there exists a place simultaneously with Taipei and yet at a different time — and so on a different plane, as in a parallel reality. Resetting clocks so that they coincide with the time of this place (whose elusive otherness can only be maintained if you stay where you are) is his version of what his mother is doing when she cooks meals for her dead husband: He’s trying to make a connection to a larger reality, minus his mother’s mumbo-jumbo. Without the solace of religion, he’s devised his own way of communing with the unseen world, a place where some trace of his father may yet exist.
The idea that there may be some connection brewing between Hsiao and Shiang-Chyi is suggested by the fact that the film moves back and forth between his Taipei peregrinations and her seemingly pointless trip to Paris. Odd moments of synchronicity between the characters in the two cities — including Shiang-Chyi’s own strange 400 Blows-connected encounter — further point to some shared fate, though that’s not quite where we’re going here. Suffice it to say that, at the end, the film enters into that elusive plane that the characters, for all their efforts, have been denied access to.
It’s a strangely satisfying story — strangely because it’s so open-ended in so many ways — but Taiwanese writer-director Tsai Ming-Liang’s main strength is as a stylist. No amount of plot synopsis can quite describe the experience of seeing this film. One is reminded of past directors such as Bresson, where quietude grows out of character, and Antonioni, where it seeps from the environment, as well as Ozu, placid but with a heightened sensitivity, and Edward Yang, master of behavioral studies.
Ming-Liang’s personal addition to the cinema of stylish ennui is a very dry humor, and though the film is slowly paced it’s far from gloomy, as he displays a deadpan whimsy embodied in long still shots of people being absurdly matter-of-fact in the midst of their bizarre compulsions. Bizarre, that is, but common to us all.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.