While he’s never received the same adulation in the West as Wong Kar-Wai, to whom he’s often compared, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien is his equal when it comes to mapping desire and loss. Three Times (Zui hao de shi guang) is the 59-year-old director’s first film to receive proper distribution in the United States. His previous movies like Dust in the Wind (Lianlian fengchen) and Goodbye South, Goodbye (Nanguo zaijan, nanguo) are exercises in minimalism famous for testing their audiences’ patience. And though Three Times is audacious and rewarding, it also doesn’t make many compromises.
Three Times’ three sections are set in different time periods and share similar themes. Each follows a love story between a man and a woman who are played by the same actors, Shu Qi and Chang Chen. Seen individually, these sections would be impressive; taken altogether, they’re devastating. Hou’s characters are not just informed by the times they live in, they are defined by them. Given that period films (and two of these segments likely qualify as period) usually display sumptuous costumes and overacting, the idea that characters are complete products of their time is practically radical.
That said, the film starts off as anything but radical. “A Time for Love” is set primarily in a small pool hall in Kaohsiung in 1966. It’s an odd kind of place, with demure girls playing the local boys, with songs like “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “Rain and Tears” on a loop. A new girl (Shu) in the hall plays a long game with a young man (Chang), who’s about to depart for military service in Taipei. He tells her he’ll write, even though they’ve barely had a conversation. After writing her for several months, he shows up on leave unexpectedly, only to be told that she’s moved on.
What follows is his cross-Taiwan odyssey to find the girl he can’t forget. This is a sublimely simple piece, and the most typical of Hou’s work. Composed of languorous, mostly silent takes, its simplicity is suffused with a giddy, romantic spirit that’s close to ravishing. It’s also nostalgic to an extreme, especially when one compares it to the next two-thirds of the film, which show love in more difficult and fraught situations.
“A Time for Freedom” takes place in a Dadocheng brothel in 1911, when Taiwan was still under Japanese rule. Shu plays a courtesan who has clearly fallen in love with a married diplomat (Chang). She’s enchanted by his kindness and quiet dignity (he sits with her for long sessions, talking of efforts to get mainland Chinese aid against the Japanese). An unapologetically melodramatic exercise, this section conveys language solely through silent-film-styled dialogue cards; practically the only sound we hear is traditional Taiwanese music, often played and sung by Shu.
With its stiff, parlor-room sadness, “Freedom” resembles a Taiwanese-styled Henry James story, distancing viewers from characters even as they are unable to communicate with each other. The social propriety on display—courtesan and politician treating each other with stately politeness—serves as an unbreachable wall that keeps the two potential lovers apart, unlike in “A Time for Love,” where the mood was more open and innocent. The “Freedom” of the title is here strictly political, not personal.
“A Time for Youth,” set in Taipei, 2005, jumps jarringly from “A Time for Freedom”‘s jewel-box quietude to a busy freeway, where Chang and Shu are blazing along on a scooter. She’s a pop singer given to epileptic fits and self-destructive moodiness, vacillating between Chang and her female live-in lover (Mei-fang), while he’s a fairly vacant type given to obsessively photographing the object of his desire. Contrasted with the rural bliss of “A Time for Love” and the refinement of “A Time for Freedom,” today’s capital city is all buzzing disconnectedness, a new-media limbo where everything is communicated (more through image and music than actual conversation) and nothing heard.
It’s as though once Hou’s characters are given the possibility of limitless communication—impossible in “Freedom” and “Love”—they don’t know what to do with it. In “Youth,” the talking is frenzied and scattershot, with voicemails and text messages flying among the players in this love triangle. These characters are by far the least connected and most miserable of any in the film. A dead-end anger lurks in the insomniac nightclubs, overcrowded apartments, and traffic-choked streets. It’s a far cry from the idyll of “A Time for Love,” and a sign of how much Taiwan has changed.
But Three Times is neither mere nostalgia nor a collection of curmudgeonly grumbles about the “kids today,” as revealed in its rapturous visuals, heartache and desire pulsing through almost every frame. It is a meditation, on love as well as time. Love is not the same from one age to the next. It changes, and not always for the best.