2005Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien
Cast: Shu Qi, Chang Chen
here isn’t a better filmmaker than Hou Hsiao-hsien working anywhere in the world right now. There—I’ve said it. Millennium Mambo was inexplicably underrated almost across the board, while the consensus on Café Lumière seemed to agree that it was minor, if exquisite, Hou. Even Roger Ebert is on board this time around, praising Hou’s latest as “magnificent,” “wise,” and “heartbreaking” in his report from last year’s Cannes film festival, while, tellingly, noting, “The entire movie distribution system of North America is devoted to maintaining a wall between you and Hou Hsiao-hsien.”
This comment struck me as more than a little ironic, as Ebert, surely the most powerful film critic writing today, seems less interested in international cinema with each passing year. Either way, though, it’s great press, and if it helps Three Times score domestic distribution outside of a brief stint in New York (the only American city where Hou’s last two films screened commercially, while his twenty-plus years-worth of prior output received no theatrical attention whatsoever in the U.S.), Ol’ Rog gets my enthusiastic thumbs-up. After four viewings, I’m still not quite ready to qualify Hou’s latest within his sterling oeuvre. I do feel fairly comfortable, however, in anointing it the best movie of the new millennium, thus far.
To my mind, Alexander Sokurov’s labyrinthine Russian Ark is the only film that comes close, and—perhaps giving something away about my own preferences and predispositions—both films are, above all, singular meditations on the ebbs and flows of history. Sokurov’s masterpiece, accused by some of Tsarist nostalgia, is simultaneously haunted by Russia’s imperial past and shot through with the tension of an earth-shaking sea-change looming on the horizon. Three Times is far more intimate and economical in its scope, but no less personal in its passion. Hou reflects on roughly a century a century of Taiwan’s sociopolitical evolution over the course of three distinct, exquisitely inter-reflexive vignettes, set in, respectively, 1966, 1911, and 2005, with Chang Chen (a rising star whose resume boasts work with Wong Kar-wai, Edward Yang, and Ang Lee) and the radiant Shu Qi (Millennium Mambo) playing the romantic leads in each time-period.
The opening segment, titled “A Time for Love,” follows a soldier named Chen (Chang Chen) as he attempts to reunite with a pool-hall girl he’d met while on leave, and written love letters to while out at sea. In the process, he meets another pool-hall girl, Shu Qi’s coy May, loses track of her after returning to the service, and proceeds to scour Taiwanese pool-halls in pursuit of her whereabouts. This is an incredibly complicated series of events for such a relatively brief episode, and its non-linear structure demands attentive viewing. That the piece is pulled off with such grace and ostensible simplicity—and without the stylistic fuss of, say, a Tarantino--is key evidence of Hou’s unparalleled command of narrative.
The opening installment’s mid-‘60’s setting, romantic tone, and especially its use of pop music (The Platters’ “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and Aphrodite’s Child’s “Rain and Tears”)—not to mention its title—will inevitably draw comparisons to Wong Kar-wai’s unmistakable mise-en-scène, but Hou’s overriding nod seems at least as strong toward his own work from the 1980’s (in particular, 1986’s Dust in the Wind). His lovers-in-the-rain scene is, in its way, as beautiful and instantly iconic as Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan’s stormy final night together in Hong Kong.
The triptych’s middle episode, “A Time for Freedom” (aka “The Real Memoirs of a Geisha”) is more clearly self-reflexive than the first. Set in a brothel in 1911, Hou fans will immediately note the similarities to his 1998 masterpiece, Flowers of Shanghai. Personally, I find the differences no less fascinating. The color-scheme, for example, is remarkably disparate, a darker blue-green palette contrasting with Flowers’ luminous hues of yellow. More radically, Hou almost completely eliminates sound from the short, claming that it would be too difficult a task to accurately replicate the spoken language of the era, and instead uses intertitles to represent the dialogue. While this decision would play as curious affectation in lesser hands, Hou pulls it off with masterful aplomb.
Of course, the principal subject of both “A Time for Freedom” and Flowers of Shanghai is liberation—from a life of service for the long-suffering geishas, and from foreign rule for Hou’s homeland. Examining the dichotomous relationship between a wealthy activist (Chang) protesting the Japanese occupation of Taiwan and a geisha (Shu) longing desperately for a life outside the brothel, this is Hou’s most explicitly political work since his trilogy on 20th Century Taiwanese history (City of Sadness , The Puppet Master , Good Men, Good Women ) and, arguably, his most resonant feminist statement to date.
The concluding vignette signals a return to the present-day Taipei of Millennium Mambo, without the earlier film’s sense of warmth and possibility. Echoing Tsai Ming-liang in its snapshot of contemporary stasis and missed connections, “A Time for Youth” is Hou at his most pessimistic—and at his most formally exciting. The couple in the 1966 episode, separated by work and by literal distance, relish their time together, and might just have a future if they play their cards right. In 2005, it’s technology (regarded affectionately in Café Lumière ) that keeps the lovers apart. Hou follows a particularly dysfunctional ménage-trois as they share text-messages, emails, and a little bit of nookie. The tragic result is, finally, only a symptom of the cold conditions of impersonal modern communication,
To be sure, each of these three segments could easily play as a superb stand-alone piece outside the framework of the whole. What makes Three Times such a monumental achievement, however, is the manner in which Hou subtly shades these distinct episodes to play in marked contrast with one another, with his own body of work, and with that of his peers. They’re variations on a theme—or rather on three: History, Love, and Cinema.
By: Josh Timmermann
Published on: 2006-01-20