Wafting across the decades, Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times presents the same romantic couple, played by Shu Qi and Chang Chen, in a trio of psychologically fraught settings and historically charged situations. Hou's latest opens, mid '60s, in a small-town Taiwanese billiards parlor, goes back 45 years to a brothel in Japanese-occupied Taiwan, and concludes amid the techno-driven confusion of contemporary Taipei. Politics, however, are submerged by Hou's exquisite formalism and, to a degree, his autobiography. My first impression of Three Times was that it was high middling Hou, conceptually bold but unevenly executed. The movie's implicit themes of time travel, eternal recurrence, and the transmigration of souls seemed as muddied by the director's devotion to Shu as they were dissipated in the confusion of the final present-day section. But Three Times improves on a second viewing as Shu's limitations become more affectingly human. Three Times does appear to fall apart in its final movement. But as that disintegration is a carefully edited contrivance, Hou's sense of motion pictures as a temporal medium seems all the more profound. Is there another filmmaker who can so fluidly celebrate the moment as well as the epoch, and do so in the same shot?
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