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. In a sense, Three Times recapitulates the Taiwanese master filmmaker’s themes and development. Each segment is titled—”A Time for Love,” “A Time for Freedom,” “A Time for Youth”—and each is focused, literally, on Shu, the thin, pouty actress Hou celebrated in Millennium Mambo.
Three Times‘ first movement makes its temporal sense immediately evident by opening with the entire Platters version of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” as the camera eyes the shyly vivacious Shu having, as a Buddhist might say, her “being” as a pool hall hostess. Chang, newly drafted, impulsively asks if he can write to her while he’s in the army. She’s pleased to accept; each then disappears. There’s no plot in “A Time for Love” beyond Chang’s attempt to find Shu again. Straightforward yet opaque, sentimental but never cloying, the sequence is all but wordless. Dialogue is subsumed in the constant clatter of billiard balls as they strike and fly apart—an unforced metaphor for the movie’s unspoken emotional laws.
Hou typically frames his shots in a room with an open door at center screen, thus creating a backdrop of vertical color bands. These careful compositions reappear in “A Time for Freedom,” but in the context of an utterly different world. Shu and Chang meet again in traditional costumes. He’s a writer with revolutionary aspirations, she’s a courtesan yearning to be free. The movie is “silent” and the copious dialogue is given in intertitles, although at several points Shu sings in sync. Hou’s reinvention of silent cinema is based on slow fades and a stately moving camera and Shu inhabits it with extraordinary grace. The compositions are the narrative—in the end, her character has been trapped, by her lover’s misplaced idealism, in a brocade prison.
A shock cut to a motorbike coursing along a Taipei skyway heralds “A Time for Youth.” It’s the postmodern era: For the first time, Shu and Chang are shown having sex. She’s some sort of ambisexual punk chanteuse. He’s one of her affectless devotees. The sequence is amorphous and chaotic. The depth of field is shallow and the geography is bewildering. Shu’s often aimless behavior is punctuated with close-ups of websites and cell phone screens—although Hou also contemplates the beauty of a beaded curtain in the singer’s disheveled apartment.
My first impression of Three Times was that it was high middling Hou—conceptu
ally 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. Shu’s limitations become more affectingly human (as does Hou’s fascination). “This was the first time I’ve actually seen a Hou Hsiao-hsien movie that I understand,” the actress enthusiastically told Cinema Scope.
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?