Walking into the theater on Thursday night, my girlfriend casually remarked that she had never even heard of writer/director Hsiao-hsien Hou before. I had to admit that I couldn't place him either. Apparently, we are the last ones to arrive at the party. Based on this one film alone, Hou shows himself to be a filmmaker steeped in the school of Jean-Luc Godard, Stanley Kubrick, and other hugely talented directors who never let story get in the way of their visual poetry. There must be few filmmakers working today who have exhibited such unforced beauty in their work as exists in Three Times, or demonstrated such a clear understanding of how to tell a simple story through simple pictures, with no fat whatsoever. Most modern directors with money to burn want to demonstrate their complexity -- they want to inhabit the mind of the critic and outflank them. Hou, on the other hand, is a natural painter. Although I have no idea if its true, I imagine him shooting until all hours, torturing his actors and financiers, and indulging whatever maniacal perfectionism was necessary to create this beautiful film.
Three Times is a tone poem about the march of time and tide across the Taiwan Strait, seen though the eyes of a young man (Chen Chang) and woman (Qi Shu) who are forever there. In three self-contained vignettes, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the 1960s, and 2005, we see them living out their early-to-mid twenties and engaging each other in the style and speed of the day. In one era, they cautiously hover near an open doorway as the world races by outside. In another era, they are the ones racing, across a daunting highway on a rickety motorbike. In one era, they stand a respectable distance apart from one another when they speak. In another era, they pull each others' clothes off. As the world changes they remain young, but not necessarily youthful or unscarred. A self-confident and casual flirt in the laid-back atmosphere of the 1960s, the girl is hugely stressed and harried in 2005, and wears an epileptic's badge around her neck. It reads: "I suffer from epilepsy. Please do not call an ambulance. Just move me to a warm, safe place."
The names of the characters change throughout the time periods, but I don't think that they are supposed to be different people, with distinct personalities. They are little more than archetypes, giving us a window into each era. Of those eras, ours is the one that comes in for the most scrutiny. 2005 is a bleary-eyed world of Sidekicks and cell-phones, confused identity, and roaring highways that climb and dip through multiple decks of population centers. This is Taiwan at the cusp of the vaunted Pacific Century, riding the crest of an epic swell of humanity, with a momentum all its own. Its also a world where the collective social antenna has been short-circuited and people are resigned to walking the streets in a Bluetooth-enabled bubble.
Singing a rock song on stage, the girl averts her eyes from the audience and seems so bored that she might tip off the stage at any moment. Later, she stands with shoulders slumped while receiving a dressing-down from her jealous lesbian lover. She couldn't really care less about her life, it seems. It no longer entertains or satisfies her. Compare this to the same girl in 1911, as she performs a song on the pipa lute with a fierce concentration, enunciating every syllable until her throat warbles, because she knows that her worth as a potential concubine is being scrutinized by the men around her. The slightest miscommunication or negative impression could have huge consequences for a woman who lives without any degree of independence. This section of Three Times is, appropriately, a silent movie, complete with title cards.
In contrast to the distant past or the scary present, the 1960s is curiously presented as an idyllic time of love and peace. It's presented as a sort of way-station in time, where young men and women have all the time in the world to make decisions or pursue dreams. "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" by The Platters is the theme of this vignette, laid over the background as the girl and boy meet by chance in a pool hall immediately before he is ordered to shove off for military service. Upon his return, he embarks on a cross-country quest to find her, staying one step behind her as he visits each of her most recent addresses. We see him standing at the bow of a motorboat as it sloshes across the harbor, like Ulysses on some epic voyage. His mind is consumed by love. The image conveyed here is of a culture at rest -- the kind of hoop skirt, malt-shop mentality that Americans associate with the 1950s. There are undoubtedly notes being played here that only Taiwanese can hear, but that doesn't make the film any less accessible to an American audience.
Very few films are uniformly gorgeous, but this one is. Qi Shu, in particular, is the stuff photographers' dreams are made of. Watch for a scene in a make-shift darkroom, where she bathes in blue light as cigarette smoke hangs still in the air. The massive color contrasts in this film, from the slightly bland earth-tones of the 1911 world to the sharp-as-steel color of 2005, are a feast for the eyes. Three Times is the kind of film you could watch over and over the way you listen to your favorite song, because the visuals will always haunt you, and the meaning may change as often as you can perceive new comparisons and contrasts between the time periods. Why were things one way then and a different way now? Are these young people happier in the past when there was more control over events and more to lose? Or are they happier now, when the world is like a wave washing over them? Or is happiness just an aberration that can only happen at a rare intersection of time and space, like that pool hall in the lazy summer world of the 1960s?