Three stories about a man and a woman, all three using the same actors. Three years: 1966, 1911, 2005. Three varieties of love: unfulfilled, mercenary, meaningless.
After two films that admittedly left me uncertain over the direction of Hou Hsiao Hsien’s cinema, it was particularly satisfying to see Hou incorporate his earlier (and specifically, more overtly political) films with his recent expositions into more distilled and highly elliptical mood pieces. Evoking Chantal Akerman’s Toute une nuit in its essential distillation of singular, transformative episodes that define the formative substance of all romantic relationships, Three Times presents a series of vignettes, each chronicling a series of understated encounters between two lovers played by same actors Chang Chen and Shu Qi, as their destinies weave through the complex socio-political terrain throughout the last century of Taiwanese history. Set in a 1966 rural province, the first chapter A Time of Love recalls the nostalgic innocence of young love of Hou’s earlier film Dust in the Wind as a young man spends the few remaining days of his civilian life at a billiard parlor before reporting for compulsory military service and falls for the parlor’s attractive, new employee. Infused with a tonal romanticism of unarticulated longing that rivals the atmospheric texturality of a Wong kar-wai retro period piece, Hou’s melodic rendition is imbued with a poetry of sensually charged gestures and understated intimacy.
The second chapter A Time for Freedom unfolds as a silent film variation of Flowers of Shanghai. Set at a brothel in 1911 during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, the film follows the evolving relationship between a highly influential newspaper editor (and political activist) and a courtesan approaching the age of marriage who is prompted to re-evaluate her own future when her patron decides to intervene in the fate of one of the junior courtesans. Retaining the atmosphere of insularity that pervades Hou’s earlier film, the episode similarly reflects Taiwan’s increasing estrangement from mainland China at the turn of the century while presenting a social critique on the consuming national and sexual politics of the times.
The third chapter, a contemporary piece set in Taipei entitled A Time for Youth recreates the modern-day rootlessness of Goodbye South Goodbye (sans implicit humor) and Millennium Mambo as a young couple lead an aimless existence of club hopping, wordless intimacy, and escapist motorcycle rides through town. Replacing the stylized, melancholic romanticism of the earlier chapters with a dedramatized, alienated realism, Hou illustrates a sense of estrangement borne, not of external circumstances, but of a pervasive spiritual inertia. Expounding on similar themes of absent parents, broken communication, and missed connection that Hou explores in his previous film, Café Lumière, the film becomes an elegy, not for the nostalgia of a bygone era, but of lost opportunity in an age of liberation.