A Terrific Beginning for the Uninitiated

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The New York Sun

A formalist filmmaker less concerned with characters than with the spaces that exist between them, the acclaimed Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao Hsien opens “Three Times” with what at first seems like an uncharacteristic burst of romantic wooziness: Over the swell of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” the camera descends into a pool hall, gently panning the crowd that has gathered around a game of billiards.

Here’s the Hou touch: A bourgeoning flirtation is granted only sidelong glances – with the potential paramours only briefly allowed in the frame together – while the billiards game receives repeated close-ups. In Mr. Hou’s world, staging and blocking are paramount, and narrative is secondary – something to be hinted at only obliquely. Rather than montage, Mr. Hou favors long, slow, sometimes mobile takes that permit the viewer ample time to explore every scene and space. Any flicker of light, shift in focus, or prominent object might be a key to the characters. For instance, in his previous film “Cafe Lumiere” – made in 2003 but given a run last year at Anthology Film Archives – trains became a metaphor for characters whose lives were passing them by.

“Three Times” is Mr. Hou’s most accessible film, but only his second, after the tepid “Millennium Mambo” (2001), to get a distributor-sanctioned U.S. release. It is, in any case, a terrific place for the uninitiated to begin. The film constitutes a veritable greatest hits of Mr. Hou’s films, telling three love stories, set in 1966, 1911, and 2005, respectively, each starring Shu Qi and Chang Chen as a pair of differently inarticulate lovers. (In the middle segment, done as a silent film with intertitles, the two literally can’t speak.)

The first and simplest of the triptych is the 1966 episode, set in the Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung and based in part on Mr. Hou’s recollections. Titled “A Time for Love,” the episode brings together a soldier, Chen (Mr. Chang), and a billiards hall worker, May (Ms. Shu), who meet by chance and flirt over a single round of snooker. He says he’ll write to her, but after he leaves to complete his military service, they begin to live their lives in counterpoint: He sends her a letter saying that it’s raining and that his base keeps playing the Aphrodite’s Child song “Rain and Tears” on the loudspeakers; when she reads about his rain and tears, she’s looking out at a sunny day.

The Chinese title of “Three Times” translates to “The Best of Our Times” – but the nostalgia implicit in that moniker is only apparent in the first section. In the 1911 segment, the ironically named “A Time for Freedom,” only the man is a free spirit. (This is a reversal of the power dynamics in Mr. Hou’s other brothel-set film, 1998’s “Flowers of Shanghai.”) Mr. Chang plays a diplomat fighting to free Taiwan from Japanese rule; his principles are admirable, yet he remains oblivious to the fact that his courtesan, Ah Mei (Ms. Shu), is a kind of prisoner.

In contrast to the open spaces and pop music of the earlier segment, the characters in “A Time for Freedom” are literally smothered by their decor: elaborate costumes, draped doorways, and frequent mirror shots increase the sense of claustrophobia. Ms. Shu’s character is immobilized, bound by a contract and cognizant of the outside world only through Mr. Chang’s reports and letters. Of the three affairs depicted in the film, this is the most stable – but also the most constricted.

To emphasize the contrast, the 2005 segment, “A Time for Youth,” opens and closes with a shot of Mr. Chang and Ms. Shu on a motorcycle – the ultimate symbol of mobility. It’s a happy ending for them, sort of. Mr. Hou’s suggestion in this episode, which revisits the milieu of “Millennium Mambo,” is that the modern world provides too much freedom for the young: Love letters have given way to the immediacy of e-mails and text messages; “Rain and Tears” and the silent film’s elegiac piano score are replaced with Ms. Shu’s atrocious karaoke (she sings, tellingly, about “no past, no future”), and the expansiveness of the city can’t make up for the emptiness of the segment’s bisexual love triangle, where passion is realized instantly through sex, but true love is in short supply.

The symmetries among the segments aren’t inflected, but Mr. Hou provides a few recurring motifs. Each section features a prominent light bulb or lantern; a scene of food being steamed, and most significantly, a text that bridges – or precipitates – a misunderstanding. Indeed, if there is a running theme, “Three Times” is about the inadequacy of written communication: All three couples fail to respond to or comprehend the significance of the messages they receive.

Is Mr. Hou taking another backhanded stab at narrative? Apparently, this enigmatic filmmaker doesn’t even trust storytelling when it’s outside his medium.

The New York Sun

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