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At the American Film Institute’s National Film Theater Feb. 1-7

Stark, dark, and almost mute, the films of Tsai Ming-liang might seem like items from the untranslated part of the Chinese pop-culture menu—an indigestible blend of Buddhism and existentialism, best left unordered. After all, the director’s latest effort, What Time Is It There?, concerns no less a downer than the deaths of the fathers of Tsai and his on-screen alter ego, Lee Kang-sheng. In fact, though, Tsai is something of a silent clown. His investigation of temporality is part meditation, part vaudeville routine on the themes of losing, changing, and killing time.

It’s useful—if not sufficient—to describe Tsai’s work in terms of other, better-known directors. 1994’s Vive l’Amour, the first Tsai film to arrive in Washington, strongly suggests Antonioni, one of the Malaysia-bred, Taiwan-based filmmaker’s stated influences. The sogginess of his subsequent features, The River and The Hole, recalls Tarkovsky’s drip-drip-drip mysticism. What Time Is It There? pays two separate forms of tribute to the movie the director has called one of his favorites, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. And Tsai’s formal, distanced style recalls both Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien and his Japanese predecessor, Yasujiro Ozu. None of these inspirations, however, are as funny as Tsai, whose films may look austere but benefit from a droll, if understated, sense of the absurd.

What Time Is It There? opens with an old man in an apartment, smoking, his only companion an electric rice cooker. Ashes to ashes: Cut to the man’s laconic son, Hsiao Kang (Lee), riding in a cab with an urn on his lap. It contains the remains of the old man, Hsiao’s father, who has been cremated and is now on his way to his final home in a columbarium. (In Vive l’Amour, Tsai’s second feature, Hsiao’s job was selling spaces in a similar mausoleum, which the film implicitly compared to the task of renting apartments in jampacked Taipei.) When the cab enters a long tunnel, the entering-the-underworld symbolism is playful. The moment also presages an even friskier visual metaphor at the film’s end.

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Hsiao sells watches on an elevated walkway in downtown Taipei, and soon after his father’s death, a woman comes looking for a watch that displays two time zones. Hsiao doesn’t have such a timepiece for sale, but he is wearing one. Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi) explains that she is leaving for Paris, and insists on buying the watch. Hsiao resists, but he relents. This brief encounter haunts the solitary vendor, who begins compulsively resetting watches and clocks to Paris time. He even goes to a bootleg-video stall, where his request for films about Paris draws two suggestions: Hiroshima, Mon Amour (uh, not quite) and The 400 Blows. Hsiao makes the right choice and takes the tape home.

While Hsiao muses on Shiang-chyi in Paris, his mother (Lu Yi-ching) becomes convinced that the altered clock in the apartment she shares with her son is a sign from her husband’s ghost: She decides that the afterlife is on Paris time—seven hours earlier than Taipei—and begins preparing meals for her late spouse on this new schedule. She also tells Hsiao to stop using the toilet because the flushing sound might scare the ghost, worries that a cockroach might be the man’s reincarnation, and ultimately blacks out the apartment because “he’s afraid of the light.” Meanwhile, Hsiao’s attempts to escape time are undermined by an unbreakable watch; manning his stand, he batters the chronometer on a metal railing, the steady rhythm providing a sort of music in a film that has no score.

Seven time zones away, Paris is no heaven for Shiang-chyi, who doesn’t speak French. She is staying in a cheap hotel in an unglamorous, landmark-free section of the city, where the streets and cafes don’t seem to have changed in the 40 years since the filming of The 400 Blows, which Hsiao watches repeatedly. (When Shiang-chyi has a brush with New Wave glamour, she doesn’t realize it: The man who hands her his phone number in a cemetery is The 400 Blows star Jean-Pierre Leaud, grown up and seemingly worn out.) Then Shiang-chyi meets another Chinese woman, but their encounter is no more successful than the makeshift erotic release sought at the exact same instant (or seven hours later) by Hsiao and—separately—his mother.

The excursion to Paris aside, What Time Is It There? doesn’t locate a lot of new territory. Tsai’s films commonly feature characters who don’t quite connect, and include such motifs as liquids, bathrooms, death, masturbation, same-sex assignations, and isolation and transformation. (They also are all autobiographical, though not literally.) But the movie is Tsai’s most beautiful, thanks to another French ingredient: cinematographer Benoit Delhomme, who’s worked with Cedric Klapisch, Jean-Jacques Beineix, and Benoit Jacquot, but is apparently best-known in Asia for shooting Franco-Viet director Tran Ahn Hung’s The Scent of Green Papaya and Cyclo.

Although Delhomme largely yielded to Tsai’s preference for fixed camera positions, he lighted and composed the shots with an artfulness not seen in the director’s previous films. Often illuminated by fluorescent lights, the most striking scenes vividly juxtapose greens and reds, with one of those hues sometimes glimpsed through the many portals that perhaps represent the world beyond. Delhomme has said that he admires Tsai’s “blend of extreme abstraction and reality,” and none of the director’s films balance the two better than What Time Is It There?. If we really do live in a world where ghosts wander among humans—and humans wander like ghosts—then Tsai’s haunted tales of the everyday offer a peek at the zone where the two almost meet. CP