A triptych of love stories told in different time periods but starring the same lead actors (Shu Qi and Chang Chen), Three Times finds Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien masterfully revisiting and expanding upon his favorite milieus and themes. Hou’s latest is yet another rumination on the symbiotic union between the past and present, the personal and the political, painting a stylistically and emotionally diverse portrait of amorous relationships that, at least in its breathtaking opening section, smolders with a slow-burn romanticism reminiscent of Wong Kar-wai’s recent 2046. Yet in its employment of protracted takes, doorway framing shots, and free-floating narratives unchained to conventional chronological progression, the film proves to be signature Hou, a case further established by the fact that—unlike Café Lumière, his 2003 homage to Yasujirô Ozu—here the director’s invariable point of reference is his own body of work. Alluding to many of his prior efforts in this trio of semi-related tales without ever succumbing to straightforward duplication, Hou beautifully binds his newest film to his canon, an act of auteurist self-reflexivity in keeping with the director’s belief in the powerful influence of history on the here and now.
Generating eroticism through an attention to graceful (human and cinematographic) movement, Three Times’ alluring 1966-set introductory segment “A Time for Love” begins with a sultry, prolonged game of billiards at a local pool hall played by the striking Chen (Chen) and watched by the radiant May (Qi), one of the business’s resident “poor girl” employees. That the plot soon moves backward in time to reveal May’s initial arrival at the pool-hall is Hou’s immediate method of forcing his audience to revisit and reassess (through memory) what’s preceded the current action, though in contrast to this cinematic collection’s subsequent stories, this first offering is perhaps the least interested in coloring its ardent central relationship with historical shadings. After departing for military service the day after his sole liaison with May, an on-leave Chen returns to find that his beloved has relocated, sparking a cross-country journey to discover May’s whereabouts that Hou (by using songs that Chen references in his letters to May, most notably “Rain and Tears,” for his soundtrack) turns into a melodic dream infused with heartbreaking yearning. Culminating in a scene of rapturous delicacy in which a close-up of holding hands—and the ensuing long-shot of Chen and May shoulder-to-shoulder under an umbrella—strikes an enchanting chord, the spellbinding “A Time for Love” overflows with exhilarating optimism.
The same cannot be said of “A Time for Freedom,” in which the interaction between revolutionary newspaperman Mr. Chang (Chen) and a fragile courtesan (Qi) in 1911 Taiwan reflects the uneasy, unbalanced realities facing men and women at the beginning of the century. In a deliberate return to his Flowers of Shanghai environs, Hou’s suffocating middle installment is a completely indoors affair, its repressive claustrophobia amplified by the filmmaker’s decision to shoot the short as a silent film. Though still displaying his trademark transitional fades and astringent blocking and framing, Hou’s old world tale is sculpted with a rigorously controlled aesthetic involving no dialogue, intertitle cards, and an omnipresent, lilting piano score, resulting in a constricting formalism that mirrors the crushing inequality that dooms Qi’s prostitute to a life of servitude. It’s an overtly self-conscious mise-en-scène that at times borders on affectation. However, the muted sequence’s crushing stillness nonetheless augments the unconsummated longing between its estranged-by-societal-boundaries protagonists. And moreover, Qi’s performance is a model of gorgeous restraint, the actress’s distraught passivity transforming her contractually bound courtesan—unable to secede from her situation just as Taiwan finds itself incapable of breaking free from occupying Imperial Japan’s rule—into a symbol of suppressed national and individual sovereignty.
With Three Times’ first two chapters forming opposing sketches of emotional expression and inhibition, respectively, the concluding “A Time for Youth” assumes a colder, chaotic perspective on love. Capturing the alienation of modern-day Taipei youth with a mixture of Millennium Mambo’s frazzled fluorescent visuals (and moody pop music) and the ravishing Goodbye South, Goodbye’s pervasive aura of immature aimlessness, this climactic episode concerns the relationship between a photographer (Chen) and an epileptic lesbian singer (Qi), two wayward souls cheating on their girlfriends but still powerless to quell their soul-crushing ennui. As in Goodbye South, Goodbye, Hou dramatizes his characters’ detachment from themselves and each other—a profound separation produced by a disconnect from their cultural and societal roots—through their attempts to communicate by means of impersonal technology. From pixilated close-ups of computer screens to characters’ futile attempts to reach acquaintances on cellphones, “A Time for Youth” posits a matrix of machinery that creates greater distance than proximity between people. And thus when Hou displays a suicide note on a PC monitor after having already supplied the text (via narration) scenes earlier—thereby again asking us to experience events in both the past and the present—the director, repeating pleas from many of his earlier films, subtly makes a case for contemporary Taiwanese’s vital duty to embrace their history.