October 10, 2005

Three Times

Reviewed by Martin Tsai at the 24th Vancouver International Film Festival

After contemplating the thematic concerns and filmmaking style of Yasujiro Ozu with Café Lumière, Hou Hsiao-hsien revisits his own with Three Times. A triptych about love, time and fate, the film encapsulates the moods, cultures and preoccupations in three of Hou’s favourite periods with the same cast led by Chang Chen and Shu Qi.

Kaohsiung, 1966: The nostalgic “A Time for Love” fondly recalls the simpler times of Hou’s youth, which he explored extensively throughout the 1980s with films like The Boys from Fengkuei and Dust in the Wind. A young man doing his mandatory military service stint (Chang) becomes smitten with a billiards parlor attendant (Shu) and promises to write her, as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “Rain and Tears” play on. When she takes a job elsewhere, he spends much of his break riding the train across the island tracking her down.

Dadaocheng, 1911: The silent chamber drama “A Time for Freedom” revolves around a brothel à la Flowers of Shanghai. A courtesan (Shu) represses her feelings for a married revolutionary poet (Chang) whose principles compel him to reject concubinage. She soon faces the prospect of lifelong servitude when he inadvertently helps the brothel’s madam marry off another courtesan who got pregnant.

Taipei, 2005: Similar to Goodbye South, Goodbye and Millennium Mambo, “A Time for Youth” centers on a pair of aimless and soulless Gen Y-ers. A bisexual rocker (Shu) and a photographer (Chang) engage in a tryst, jeopardizing their respective relationships with jealous girlfriends. But their fleeting physical intimacy seems to be the only connection in this emotionally vacuous world where everyone is venting discontent via cell phones, text messages, e-mails and techno music.

Through repetitions and variations, Hou economically yet authoritatively compares and contrasts how the shifting times have redefined our values and priorities but not our basic need for human bonding. Each of the three parts is a masterpiece in its own right, and the innocence, doom and desperation variously conveyed in the different segments are all thoroughly felt. The collective Three Times isn’t just the definitive Hou or the definitive treatment of Taiwanese life, but the definitive observation on the evolution of humanity.

© Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.