THREE TIMES

Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Taiwan. 2005.


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“Who’s Hou?” may in future be a less frequently-heard reaction of people on hearing the name Hou Hsiao-Hsien, following the release of the Taiwanese master’s latest and possibly most accessible film, Three Times. The director of the magisterial epic A City of Sadness, the never-released (in the UK) Flowers of Shanghai, and the delightful Ozu tribute Café Lumiere, must surely now be regarded as one of the very finest film-makers currently active.

Three Times is a tryptich, a succession of stories about young love and courtship set respectively in 1966, 1911, and 2005, and entitled respectively A Time for Love, A Time for Freedom, and A Time for Youth. Each 40-minute story, set in different locations in Taiwan, features the same two actors, Chang Chen (who played Zhang Ziyi’s lover in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Shu Qi, a fascinating actress with a passing resemblance to the young Emmanuele Beart.

Hou’s understated style is well in evidence here, at least in the first two stories, with minimal action, very little dialogue (none at all for the first 10 minutes), and long pauses which speak volumes. For me the first story is near-perfect, perhaps because it is autobiographical and I am of similar vintage to Hou. Set in a succession of snooker halls, it tells of a shy young man on leave from military service who is searching for the equally shy girl he once fell in love with. When they are together their communication is virtually wordless; these scenes are so truthful. The exquisite romanticism puts Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, fine film though that is, completely in the shade. Twice we hear the Platters’ “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”, which just happens to be my all-time favourite No. 1 single.

The second story is the only one whose setting is totally alien to the Western viewer. Like Flowers of Shanghai, it takes place in a high-class brothel where strict rules of etiquette and ritual are observed in the most minute detail. It is made in the form of a silent movie, with intertitles replacing spoken dialogue, though the shooting and acting styles are modern. There is music throughout, which at one point appears to be a character singing, though a closer inspection suggests the lip-movements and sound are not in sync; perhaps this is meant to be the Chinese equivalent of the piano which accompanied silent cinema. It is all stunningly beautiful, and is set against the political background of 1911, Taiwan being occupied by Japan at the time.

The third story is, for me, the least appealing. Set in the world of rock singers, ear-splitting clubs, and motor-cyclists, the written communications of the first two stories are here replaced by the text message. The girl character is apparently based on an actual bisexual Taiwanese rock star. Life for these characters seems utterly aimless, and Hou has accurately represented it. I am sure another viewing would reveal hidden subtleties, for example one critic claims to have detected the actual suicide of a character who earlier had threatened it, though it required close attention to so detect it.

Of those I have seen, Three Times certainly rates among Hou’s best films, though I personally prefer A City of Sadness and even Café Lumiere. It may well become his most successful UK release, and it is a highly recommended introduction to his work for those unfamiliar with it.

Alan Pavelin

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