Three different times. Three different stories. Three pairs of lovers. Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien takes this concept of star-crossed lovers and brings us a trilogy that moves from 1966 to 1911 to 2005 where each couple (played in all three segments by Shu Qi and Chang Chen) faces a bittersweet romance in “Three Times.”
This is a film that won’t appeal to the masses but is, in its own quiet way, a trio of languid love stories starting with “A Time for Love” set in 1966. May (Shu Qi) is a hostess at a local billiards hall where she spends her time losing (usually on purpose) to her male clientele, praising them for their skill. Chen (Chang Chen) is a guy marking his time playing pool before being inducted into the Taiwanese army. He is taken by May’s pretty looks and charm and, as he prepares for his tour of duty, promises that he will write. On his return, some time later, he learns that May has moved on. The remainder of this segment has Chen searching for May.
The 1911 story, “A Time for Freedom,” tells of Ah Mei, a concubine who yearns to be free of the brothel in which she toils. Her one hope is Mr. Chang, a political activist working to help throw the Japanese overlords out of Taiwan. But, her client/lover is too obsessed with his activism or too afraid to show his feelings. This segment is done in silence, using title cards, with quiet music playing over the “action.”
Part three, “A Time for Youth” set in 2005, is the tale of an epileptic singer, Jing, and her casual affair with Zhen, a photographer, leaving her femme lover to fend for herself. This segment is steeped in ambiguity (perhaps too much so) and is the least compelling of the three.
Director Hou siao-Hsien tells this trilogy, by screenwriter Chu Tien-Wen, in a highly stylized manner that looks great, especially parts one and two, with well crafted production values. The 1966 segment is set primarily in a billiards hall where the young almost-lovers’ enamor is ended by their separation. Best looking is the 1911 portion with beautiful costumes and intriguing silent performances by the principals. The modern 2005 piece is the most physical, and less distinctive visually, with Jing and Zhen falling into torrid bouts of raw sex.
With little by way of action, “Three Times” is the kind of film, running over two hours, that requires the viewer to make an investment, both of intellect and of time, to appreciate it. It’s not the kind of film for the average bear and will find its best audience in the art house circuit. I give it a B.Laura:
Director Hou Hsiao-hsien ("Flowers of Shanghai," "Café Lumière") visits three important periods in Taiwan's history where two people experience different outcomes as the actors playing them fall in love "Three Times."
This glorious triptych is a meditation on how words, poetry and music connect us to time, place and each other as well as being a an introduction or summation of Hsiao-hsien's style. While the first episode, the 1966 set "A Time for Love," is the most completely satisfying, each different pairing has something unique and fascinating to offer.
A soldier, Chen (Chen Chang, "2046"), spends his leave at a Kaohsiung billiards hall falling in love with its pool girls, but when he meets May (Qi Shu, "Millennium Mambo," "The Transporter"), something more real happens. Hsiao-hsien has a bit of play here, with Chen's letters to the first, sophisticated Miss Haruko, and then to the simpler May, sounding fairly identical ('time flies'), so when Chen's third return finds yet another girl in May's place, we expect him to repeat his pattern. But no, Chen turns finding May into a quest and when he does, her giggling delight is charming. "A Time for Love" is stunning, with its stylized color palette and nostalgic use of music ('Rain and Tears,' 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes').
In 1911, Taiwan is occupied by the Japanese in "A Time for Freedom," and Ah Mei (Qi Shu) is a flower of Shanghai who loves a married client, Mr. Chang (Chen Chang), whose principles will not allow him to engage a concubine. While in color, this segment is silent, its words displayed on ornately designed title cards. The classical piano score beautifully evokes the silent era. This couple's doomed relationship also contains a letter, a final regret from Mr. Chang, split from his lover as he is split from his homeland.
In 2005 Taipei it is "A Time for Youth" and Jing (Qi Shu) is a provocative chanteuse, all heroin chic. Zhen (Chen Chang) fetishizes her with his camera while she performs and his girlfriend departs in fury. They sleep together and only then do we learn she lives with her female lover whose text messages she guiltily ignores. Jing sings about celebrating one's individuality, yet these people seem disconnected for all their technical hookups. Hsiao-hsien and cinematographer Pin Bing Lee's ("Springtime in a Small Town," "Café Lumière") colors have all but drained from the sensuous greens and yellows of the first, stately reds of the second to the black, white and blue coolness that equates to "Youth's" characters and their haunting but hip music.
"Three Times" washes over the viewer like someone else's cherished memories. It is a beautiful evocation of three eras, each artistically attuned to its time.
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