Three Times Review

Founder and Editor; Toronto, Canada (@AnarchistTodd)


Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao Hsien is rightly hailed as one of the brightest lights in Asia's film world, consistently turning out gorgeously photographed, subtle pieces that capture the fragile emotions of his characters. Thus, when it is said that his triptych film Three Times fully succeeds in only two of its three parts it should be kept in mind that a lesser work by Hou standards generally still stands well above the best that most others can turn out and in this case a “lesser” work was still good enough to take home Taiwan's Golden Horse for Best Picture as well as a Best Actress nod for leading lady Shu Qi.

Hou's latest plays out in three distinct parts, each set in a different time period and each starring Shu Qi and Chang Chen as young lovers. The first segment, A Time For Love, is set in 1966 with Chang Chen as a young man just called up for military service. Chen meet's Shu Qi's May, a young woman working in a pool hall and strikes up a friendship with her via mail, eventually seeking her out in person while on a one day leave. The second segment, A Time For Freedom, is set in 1911 with Taiwan under Japanese occupation and China undergoing the transition into a republic. Chen stars as a scholar working towards Taiwanese freedom and Shu Qi as an upper class courtesan in a long term relationship with Chen. The third segment, A Time For Youth, is set in modern day Taiwan with Shu Qi as a seriously ill singer involved in a lesbian relationship but also involved in a secret relationship with Chen's photographer character.

As is always the case with Hou Three Times is impeccably crafted. The composition and photography is simply stunning throughout and he draws excellent performances from both of his leads. Shu Qi, in particular, has a well deserved reputation for taking on roles where she is little more than vapid eye candy – very fine eye candy, but eye candy nonetheless – but when she works with Hou it is as though she is transformed into another performer entirely, showing a gift for subtlety and an ability to communicate wordlessly largely absent in her other work. Her work here is very well deserving of the Golden Horse it earned. Chang Chen, best known in these parts for his work in Crouching Tiger, is no less strong for being less surprisingly so.

Hou's typically minimal style, with dialogue held to a bare minimum and A Time For Freedom actually set as a silent with dialogue delivered via intertitles, is best suited to his first two pieces. A Time For Love is largely based on Hou's memories of his own youth spent in Taiwanese pool halls listening to western pop music in the sixties and is filled with the hazy glow of nostalgia. It is a story perfectly told through what is left unsaid, where the important moments are the glances across rooms and nervous postures, the restless energy and insecurity struggling to find a voice. It is May's physical response to Chen's unannounced appearance, the eventual clasping of hands, that tells the story here and anything beyond what Hou gives us would simply be unnecessary clutter. Likewise A Time For Freedom is a story of repressed emotion, one driven by what cannot be said because of caste pressures. As the piece progresses you may well wonder whether Taiwan's occupation is meant to be a symbol of Chang Chen and Shu Qi's relationship or whether it is the other way around, but by the end it simply doesn't matter which is which. Whether read on a personal or political level the film is a cry for the freedom of self determination and Hou's typical restraint meshes perfectly with that point.

The story is different with A Time For Youth, however. The film's explicit desire to represent youthful passion is at stark odds with Hou's placid technique and he entirely fails to capture the energy of his characters and their surroundings, a failing particularly evident in the live club scene. Hou's other skills are still in full effect – the scenes of the young lovers riding their motorcycle along a string of urban highways are simply stunning – but the visuals simply aren't enough to overcome the emotional distance that seems entirely out of place here. While it is easy to identify with the tentative reaching out of A Time For Love and equally easy to sympathize with the stifled desire of A Time For Freedom, there simply isn't anywhere to hang your emotional hat with A Time For Youth. With A Time For Youth coming last in the overall piece this means that Three Times ends on a down note, and it is certainly hard to understand why the film is structured as it is, with the strongest segment first and the weakest last.

The recent DVD release is a strong one, with a strong anamorphic transfer doing an excellent job of preserving the film's rich cinematography, a few specks of dirt on the print notwithstanding. The subtitles are excellent, and the special features are very English friendly with all features but one – an interview reel – featuring an English option. And this is actually one film where you should fully explore the features before moving on to the film itself as the DVD includes detailed background notes that explain both the settings and the characters of each of the three segments, information particularly helpful when approaching the two period set pieces.

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