This review was updated on May 25, 2005.
Synthesizing Hou Hsiao-hsien’s ambivalent relationship with time and memory, “Three Times” forms a handy connecting arc between the Taiwanese helmer’s earlier work and the increasingly fragmentary direction of his recent films. Best appreciated by those familiar with his slow rhythms and pessimistic take on contempo life, pic presents three stories using the same leads set in three time periods to explore love and how the present circumscribes lives. Less accessible than recent “Cafe Lumiere,” pic will appeal strongly to fans, but won’t see much action outside fests and very limited arthouse exposure.
Originally slated as an omnibus production and pitched at Pusan, pic couldn’t find financing to bring three helmers on board, so Hou took on the whole thing himself. He scrapped the original part three, commissioning a new one that jived more with his view of the present, and shot part two, set in 1911, as a silent film complete with intertitles and musical accompaniment. The decision to shoot silent arose from the tight shooting schedule, when fidelity to the verbal stylization of early 20th century Mandarin proved too complicated for the cast to learn quickly, and Hou saw an opportunity for experimentation.
Periods chosen — 1966, 1911 and 2005 — have resonances in Hou’s psyche. The first, “A Time for Love” (Lian’ai meng), matching the helmer’s youth, takes on a relatively linear narrative with well-defined characters, reminiscent of his earlier autobiographical works; seg hinges on the meeting of soldier boy Chen (Chang Chen) with pool hall hostess May (Shu Qi, reunited with Hou after “Millennium Mambo”) and his subsequent search for her.
Second episode, “A Time for Freedom” (Ziyou meng), set in the kind of upscale brothel of “Flowers of Shanghai,” represents his attraction to the past, with Shu essaying a courtesan tending to a Mr. Chang (Chang) during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan.
Third episode, “A Time for Youth” (Qingchun meng), set in present-day Taipei, is the bleakest, as to be expected from someone continually prodding at the disorder at the heart of contempo Taiwanese life. Tale here centers on epileptic singer Jing (Shu) who casually takes up with photographer Zhen (Chang) while increasingly ignoring her female lover.
The last section is arguably the least satisfying of the three. The lesbian lover receives inordinate screen time, and a club performance, with Jing singing (in broken English) about the need to liberate oneself, could have been written with a more subtle hand. But pic’s conception of how the present imposes behavior would be lost without the final third, which makes “Three Times” a terrific summation of Hou’s philosophical aesthetic.
Chinese title translates as “the best of moments,” a more fitting encapsulation of the helmer’s engagement with the preciousness of memory.
Perfs are uniformly high. The radiant Shu has a faultless grasp of the three women, from the girlish, giggly pool hall hostess to the womanly courtesan to the final burned-out Jing. Similarly, Chang’s sense of character, given most scope in part one, transcends the generally silent nature of the roles.
Together with regular ace d.p. Mark Lee Ping-bin, Hou crafts different styles of lensing for each period. In keeping with his earlier pics, 1966 is based on frequent shot repetitions, mostly grounded in a middle distance with a still camera. 1911 is bathed in a warmer, more golden light, similar to the lushness of “Flowers of Shanghai.” Given the confined spaces of the wooden brothel, he brings his figures closer to the foreground. Finally, 2005 is predictably colder, stylistically a continuation of “Millennium Mambo” with its fluorescent lighting and cool blues, and a greater sense of claustrophobia.
Never before has Hou used music in such a sophisticated, Proustian manner: The Platters’ recording of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is a surprisingly schmaltzy choice for the restrained helmer, but ideally suits the sentiments and setting of the first section. Similarly, the quiet piano modulations accompanying the silent 1911 section gently blend with the restrained action into an organic whole.