The turn of the 21st century in Taiwan was marked, as in most countries, by intense fears of the “millennium bug”. This “Y2K” bug would supposedly leave computerised systems incapable of coherently managing dates beyond December 31, 1999, resulting in societal chaos and collapse. As Taiwan Today reported on January 1, 1999 – a year before the “Y2K” bug was expected to wreak havoc – “as the clock ticks ever nearer to the year 2000, the ROC [Republic of China] government is working feverishly to solve the millennium bug problem and head off its potentially disastrous effects on Taiwan’s society.”1  As in other countries, Taiwan’s fears about the “Y2K” bug took on apocalyptic overtones. The Taiwan Today article quotes Premier Siew who describes the millennium bug as the “contemporary version of the biblical century-end disasters”2.

Unlike other countries, in Taiwan these temporal anxieties about the millennial turn intersected with localised worries about time being out of joint, to use film philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s famous appropriation of a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet3. Taiwan’s modern history is distinctively marked by a plurality of competing forces seeking to impose different meanings and agendas on Taiwanese cultural identity. The country’s lingering politically ambiguous status carries the legacy of this layering of historical forces and colliding metrics of national progress. The country was under Japanese rule until 1945, and after World War II was placed under the governance of the ROC, until the 1949 Chinese Civil War ignited deep-rooted tensions between the ROC and the newly established People’s Republic of China. Taiwan underwent a process of democratisation throughout the 1990s, culminating in significant shifts around the turn of the millennium with the first free and direct presidential election in the country’s history taking place in 1996, and the rise to power in 2000 of the Democratic Progressive Party. Political science researcher Thomas J. Bellows declared of the election, “democracy has taken root in Taiwan”, celebrating the momentous creation of “a homegrown democracy”, rather than one “imposed by an occupying power”4.

Yet this political progress towards independence and autonomy was accompanied by economic turmoil. Despite weathering the Southeast Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s with continued economic growth, by 2001, the year that Malaysian-Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang’s What Time is it There? was released, the country was hit with a recession5. As CNN reported at the time, the recession marked “the steepest drop off in 26 years in Taiwan”, noting that the “rapid decline in the economy has forced lawmakers to seek closer ties with mainland China”6. The new millennium in Taiwan was thus characterised by a deeply felt temporal disjointedness, as political progress carried with it undercurrents of decline and a bubbling to the surface of legacies of political oppression and economic dependence.

What Time is it There? captures this “cultural” time out of joint in Taiwan at the turn of the millennium. The protagonist is a street vendor in Taipei who sells wristwatches out of a briefcase. The film follows two parallel storylines, one focused on the watch seller, Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng), and one on a young woman, Shiang-Chyi (Chen Shiang-Chyi), who buys a wristwatch from Hsiao-Kang before travelling to Paris. This parallel temporal strategy was common in films of the millennial turn, from Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999) and Traffic (Steven Soderbergh, 2000) to Lantana (Ray Lawrence, 2001).

Tsai’s parallel narratives are delivered through sequences that challenge the audience with feats of temporal endurance in line with the types of films Deleuze references in defining his influential concept of the “time-image.” These films, Deleuze argues, depict a time that is off its hinges and out of joint, and include the work of Japanese auteur Yasujiro Ozu and French nouvelle vague director François Truffaut7. Deleuze pinpoints the long, languorous takes of these films as examples of images that compel the audience to feel time passing.

What Time is it There? shares this approach to filmmaking filled with images “infused with time”8. The film is composed of long takes which force us to experience and endure the passage of time, sometimes agonisingly, with the two protagonists as they wander aimlessly around the streets of Taipei and Paris or sit by the side of desolate pools. In such sequences of wandering and waiting, “a cinema of seeing replaces action”9. As Catrina Sun-Tan puts it, the film is so slow it “can feel like pure torture”10. Tsai defies clear narrative coordinates or momentum in ways that resonate with Taiwan’s plural and non-linear national identity during this period of confusing transformation marked by the millennial turn.

Clocks and watches feature heavily throughout Tsai’s film as if to tease the audience with their irrelevance and impotence. As Lee Carruthers writes of the film, these timepieces “assume a fetishized status” through both the characters and camera’s obsession with them, however this “‘overregulation’ of time… does not actually capture or consolidate it”11. Throughout the film, time becomes “unhinged” from linear narrative progression that leads towards some type of meaningful climax: instead, we experience “the empty form of time, time without content”, to use Steven Swarbrick’s description of Deleuze’s “time-image”12.

Hsiao-Kang watches Jean-Pierre Léaud’s performance in Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, Truffaut, 1959).

In Deleuze’s writing, the work of the nouvelle vague directors like the above-mentioned Truffaut is credited with inventing or popularising key devices of the “time-image” in post-World War II cinema. Notably, Tsai – himself one of the most celebrated directors of Taiwan’s own Second “New Wave” of filmmakers – gestures directly to the influence of Truffaut in What Time is it There? The narrative about troubled young woman Shiang-Chyi focuses on her travels to Paris in search of elusive meaning, where she has a chance encounter with iconic nouvelle vague actor, Jean-Pierre Léaud. In watch seller Hsiao-Kang’s parallel narrative, he sees this actor on his TV screen while watching a bootleg copy of Truffaut’s influential Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959). This film features the most famous of Léaud’s performances.

Again, we feel the uncanny weight of time passing in the echo of Léaud encounters across two very different lives: on Hsiao-Kang’s TV screen in his dingy Taipei apartment, the actor appears as a 14-year-old child in the type of performance that Deleuze identifies as pivotal to the “time-image”, in which child characters, not yet equipped for or permitted full participation in adult society, are forced to wait and watch rather than act on the situations they encounter13. Yet, in Shiang-Chyi’s encounter with the actor, Léaud appears as a mysterious older man sitting on a bench by a cemetery in Paris, in stark contrast to the child depicted in evocative black-and-white close-ups on Hsiao-Kang’s TV screen.

Shiang-Chyi meets the older Jean-Pierre Léaud at a cemetery in Paris.

The different time zones in which these two narratives take place further reinforce our experiences of a temporality unhinged from meaning throughout What Time is it There? The film ultimately operates as Tsai Ming-Liang’s play with the language and philosophy of cinematic temporality, as the film’s disjointed layers of passing time refract a Taiwanese culture “out of joint” at the dawn of the new millennium.

Ni na bian ji dian/What Time is it There? (2001 Taiwan/France 116 mins)

Prod Co: Homegreen Films/Arena Films Prod: Laurence Picollec Dir: Tsai Ming-Liang Scr: Tsai Ming-Liang, Yang Pi-Ying Phot: Benoît Delhomme Ed: Chen Sheng-Chang Prod Des: Kam Tim Yip

Cast: Lee Kang-Sheng, Chen Shiang-Chyi, Lu Yi-Ching, Tien Miao, Cecilia Yip, Chen Chao-Jung, Jean-Pierre Léaud.


  1. Brian Liu, “Taiwan Striving to Stomp Millennium Bug”, Taiwan Today (1 January 1999): https://taiwantoday.tw/news.php?unit=29,45&post=36632.
  2. Liu.
  3. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1989, 41.
  4. Thomas J. Bellows, “The March 1996 Elections in the Republic of China on Taiwan”, American Journal of Chinese Studies, 3.2 (1996): 235.
  5. “Economy of Taiwan”, Britannica (2023): https://www.britannica.com/place/Taiwan/Economy.
  6. “Taiwan Hits Recession with GDP Drop”, CNN.com (16 November 2001): http://edition.cnn.com/2001/BUSINESS/asia/11/16/taiwan.gdp/index.html.
  7. Deleuze, 41.
  8. Christopher Vatale, “Guide to Reading Deleuze’s Cinema II: The Time-Image, Part 1: Towards a Direct Imaging of Time to Crystal-Images”, Networkologies (29 April 2011): https://networkologies.wordpress.com/2011/04/29/tips-for-reading-deleuzes-cinema-ii-the-time-image-towards-a-direct-imaging-of-time/.
  9. Deleuze, 9.
  10. Catrina Sun-Tan, “Framing Time: Tsai Ming-Liang’s What Time Is It There?”, Film Matters (7 May 2018): https://www.filmmattersmagazine.com/2018/05/07/framing-time-tsai-ming-liangs-what-time-is-it-there-by-catrina-sun-tan/.
  11. Lee Carruthers, Doing Time: Temporality, Hermeneutics, and Contemporary Cinema, Albany, State University of New York Press, 2015, 96.
  12. Steven Swarbrick, “In Anthropocene Air: Deleuze’s Encounter with Shakespeare”, Early Modern Culture, 13.8 (2018): 103.
  13. Deleuze, 3-4.

About The Author

Jessica Balanzategui is Senior Lecturer in Media at RMIT University. Jessica specialises in screen genres for and about children, and horror and the Gothic. Her work has been widely published in journals such as New Media and Society, Convergence, The Journal of Visual Culture, Television and New Media, and Celebrity Studies. Her books include The Uncanny Child in Transnational Cinema (Amsterdam UP 2018) and Netflix, Dark Fantastic Genres, and Intergenerational Viewing (Routledge, with Baker and Sandars, 2023). Jessica is Founding Editor of Amsterdam UP’s Horror and Gothic Media Cultures series.

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