Regular readers of these pages will be no strangers to the name of Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien, though they may well be strangers to his films — primal visual and temporal experiences in which you don’t so much look at images as drink them in, and where a single cut may take you across months or years or decades without warning. Excepting a 2001 partial retrospective that played to sold-out crowds at LACMA, and a one-week local engagement of his 2001 feature Millennium Mambo — three years after it was made — Hou’s work has never received proper theatrical distribution in this city (or anywhere else in the U.S.), despite the general agreement of critics and festival audiences that he ranks among the world’s greatest living directors. So it qualifies as a major event that Hou’s latest film, Three Times, is receiving something close to a wide release, popping up simultaneously in a handful of theaters and on on-demand cable television. And though I wouldn’t recommend that your first encounter with Hou take place in your living room — or even my living room, with its newly installed HDTV — I urge you to see the ineffably beautiful Three Times however you can, lest you go on thinking that Hou’s greatness is merely the supposition of obscurantist critics intent on reserving their highest praise for those films that nobody else can actually see.
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A cinematic jukebox that unleashes not just music but memories, Three Times plays out three stories of melancholy romance, each set during a different time period and each starring the same pair of actors (the luminescent Shu Qi and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star Chang Chen) as the lovers held apart by time and tide, historical events beyond their control or (more often than not) their own terminal indecisiveness. In the first (and most seductive) story, subtitled “A Time for Love,” Chen, an army conscript in 1966 Kiaoshung, spends his last night as a civilian in the company of radiant pool-hall hostess May. He promises to write to her, and he does, remarking on how aptly the words of the Aphrodite’s Child song “Rain and Tears” seem to encapsulate his longing, moments before the song itself pours out onto the movie’s soundtrack. But when Chen returns to Kiaoshung on leave, he finds that May has moved on to another pool hall in another town, and so he sets off to find her, until they re-connect amid the billowing steam of a Huwei noodle shop, mere hours before Chen is due back at his post.
In the subsequent “A Time for Freedom,” the time is 1911 and the place an elegant brothel where the courtesan Ah Mei longs for her freedom, much as Taiwan itself struggles loose from the grip of imperial Japan. Though she pines in silence — quite literally, given that Hou stages the entire episode as a silent film — for the affections of the married diplomat Mr. Chang, his progressive politics will not allow him to consider taking Ah Mei as his concubine. Finally, “A Time for Youth” catches us up to the present and a love triangle between an amateur photographer (Chang), a distant nightclub chanteuse (Shu, singing ear-piercing karaoke in splintered English) and her suicidally jealous lesbian lover. This concluding chapter is, by far, the least satisfying part of Three Times’ triptych — the one in which no matter how hard we try to get a handle on the characters, they keep slipping out of our grasp — and yet that intangibility may be Hou’s very subject. Here, the “freedom” so hard won by those of Ah Mei’s generation is little felt by the characters who bask in it, their rudderless lives as diffuse as the e-mails and text messages (silent-film intertitles of a different sort) by which they communicate. It is as if, for Hou, that while the past is fundamentally irretrievable, it is at least fixed and unwavering, whereas the present is suffused with Heisenbergian uncertainty.
The movie’s most rapturous encounter is its first: Chen playing billiards under the warm lamplight while May looks on, the Platters’ rendition of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” wafts through the smoky air, and Hou extracts more erotic possibilities from a billiards table than one would have dreamt possible. It’s a scene that comes before we’ve even been introduced to the characters, and to which the film never returns, and yet in that moment we seem to understand exactly who these two people are and what they mean to each other. It is, like so much else in Hou’s work, and in our own lives, a moment out of time.
THREE TIMES | Directed by HOU HSIAO-HSIEN | Written by CHU TIEN-WEN | Produced by CHANG HUS-FU, HUANG WERN-YING and LIAO CHING-SONG | Released by IFC Films | At Music Hall