[Note: Three Times was originally seen last year at the Toronto film festival; this review was posted in the appropriate festival thread on 10/07/05.]
*A 2006 U.S. Release*
A haunting and hypnotic journey encapsulating time, memory and space, Three Times (Zui hao de shi guang), the latest chef-d'oeuvre from Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien, is a film which ultimately travels straight-to-the-heart. Comprised of three segments spread across time, it stars Hous muse Shu Qi and Wong Kar Wais regular Chang Chen as lovers who return in each segment with different identities facing a different set of rules established by history and society.
Nothing bounds the opening sequence, however, one which is destined to go down as one of the greatest moments from the master: As The Platters "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" fills the auditory senses, the fluid, sumptuous images of DP Mark Lee Ping-bin capture the visuals, simply leaving one in a state of awe. From the green baize of the snooker table reflecing in the skin of the participants (including our protagonists) quietly playing what theyre about to play across time, to the hazy Nouvelle Vague ambiance, its simply breathtaking to watch. One could obviously tell the time-period from the details, and it isnt long that Hou begins his first segment in the same frame 1966 to be exact, with the title, "A Time for Love." Here, Shu Qi plays May, a pool-hall hostess who eventually gets the attention of Chen (Chang Chen), a soldier and a regular visitor of the parlors. But the duo lose touch after Chen gets called in for service and May has to move to another town for a job.
While overall, Hou has tried to underplay the political angle to Three Times, it's quite prominent. In this particular segment, its hard not to notice the constant physical displacement of his characters, something that brings to mind the Cultural Revolution of the mid-60's which had similar effects. There are numerous shots of Chang traveling to and fro across the harbor for his service, and at one point he even goes from one small town to another in search of his love. For this section, Hous Dust in the Wind (1986) also comes to mind, and a whiff of The Time to Live and the Time to Die (1985) is hard to miss. But "A Time for Love" is primarily an ode to the directors days of youth; hes said that he was in love with the music of that era, something that becomes obvious with his repeated use of Aphrodites Childs "Rain and Tears," most effectively as the segment beautifully culminates near a railway station, another place Hou is well familiar with.
The second segment, "A Time for Freedom," one which will lead most viewers familiar with Hou's work to point to his 1998 masterpiece Flowers of Shanghai, is possibly even more political. Set in 1911 at a brothel, not unlike the one from the former, this segment recalls the time of Japanese occupation of Hous homeland. Chang plays a liberal diplomat trying to convey his ideas to the masses against the control. Here, Chang is a regular at the brothel since he's the master of a concubine simply named Shu (Shu Qi). Like any concubine, Shus ultimate dream is to become married, or at least be set free by her married master, someone who truly believes in freedom, but its hard to tell if this patriot actually understands the sorrow of his own muse.
Hou has shot the segment like a silent film, with intertitles. (Hou has said that this wasn't an aesthetical choice but rather a practical one since the subtleties of the language spoken during that time period are extremely difficult to learn.) Only the musical pieces that accompany the visitors at the dinners are heard, and pointedly express the inner turmoil Shu goes through while she performs. "A Time for Freedom" is perhaps the most devastating segment of the three, thanks in part to DP Mark Lee who once again does wonders, this time in restrictive physical and emotional space.
And then, in an instant, we watch Chang flying down a noisy Taipei highway on his motorcycle with Shu on his back. This is, after all, "A Time for Youth," in the present day Taiwanese capital. Disorientation begins early and it stays till the very end. Shu Qi plays Jing, an epileptic singer who has someone else besides the man in her life played by, once again, Chang Chen, a photographer in this segment.
Hou enters "Millennium Mambo" territory here with neon lights, exquisite interior designs, and a general emotive coldness. He has said that he shot an hour of this segment and Id be very interested in that. The underlying mystery in this piece is often jarred by sudden shifts, but that may have been the point. Nevertheless, in the throes of a haunting melody, Hou ultimately takes us back on the road of life whose uncertainty can only lead us to brace ourselves, and hold on tight to the ones we love.
THREE TIMES premiered at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival (in-competition). The film will be released in the U.S. by IFC - On Demand on April 26th.