Alongside Vive L’Amour‘s Tsai Ming-liang, Hou Hsiao-Hsien is another heavyweight in Taiwanese New Wave Cinema. I and many others were introduced to Hou through his 1989 piece A City of Sadness, which was groundbreaking in Taiwan for addressing the infamous 228 Incident, in which the ruling KMT massacred tens of thousands of rebellious native Taiwanese on February 28, 1947 (and is one of the most pivotal events in the island’s recent history and identity). Despite not being a native Taiwanese (he was born in Guangdong and fled from the Chinese Civil War in 1948), Hou focuses heavily on Taiwan’s local color. For instance, my second exposure to him was through 1983’s The Sandwich Man, which consisted of three separate stories adapted from an anthology by Taiwanese “nativist literature” author Huang Chunming. Sandwich Man’s vignettes highlighted the lives of indigent characters struggling to exist in Cold War Taiwan. Like City of Sadness, it is minimalistic, quiet, and highly intricate.
Hou brings all of those aforementioned factors to the subject of today’s review, Three Times. Released in 2005, it naturally has a more modern feel than City of Sadness or Sandwich Man, but retains many classic Hou traits. For one, there’s an obvious similarity between Sandwich Man and Three Times: both films have three self-contained narratives. However, that trait alone is shared superficially at best. While Sandwich Man‘s exclusively 1960s-era stories each have different casts, Three Times deploys the same female (Shu Qi) and male (Chang Chen) lead across for all of its segments, but set them in three distinct time periods. It starts in 1966 with “A Time for Love”, fades back to 1911 in “A Time for Freedom”, and then jumps with “A Time for Youth” to 2004. All three portions address themes of love and belonging, but do so in different ways. They all favor music over dialog, although each has a dissimilar yet equally unforgettable soundscape. The three pieces are all poignant, but also to varying degrees.
“A Time for Love” opens the film with a classic love story. The segment commences in a pool hall, in which shots (from both camera and snooker pole) swing wistfully to the longing chords of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”. We see the protagonists immediately, but don’t learn anything about them until well after that song ends. The year is 1966, and we are in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. A young man who’s about to go on mandatory military service shares a delicate snooker session with the girl staffing the hall. Before leaving, he promises to write her, dropping a small seed of romance that he actually ends up watering. In his first letter he indicates his hydration of choice is the song “Rain and Tears”, which proceeds to drive the segment forward towards a heartwarming, but not sappy, conclusion. The music in this section is truly powerful. It blends excellently with well-crafted imagery, and “Rain and Tears” is such a magnificently memorable selection that my first thought when finishing the segment was “wow, I have to go find this song.” Out of the three narratives, “A Time for Love” is probably the most universally likeable, and also the easiest to follow in terms of plot.
The least universally accessible segment would be the second, “A Time for Freedom”. Truly appreciating this section requires some historical and cultural context. Set in 1911, it deploys our two leads in Dadaocheng (one of Taipei’s oldest districts) as a lady courtesan and a young intellectual. Both yearn, as the title may suggest, for freedom—her from the culturally-imposed confines of her brothel, and him for Taiwan from Japanese colonial rule. 1911 is also an important year for “freedom” in the Sinosphere. It was when, through the Wuchang Uprising and subsequent Xinhai Revolution, China threw off the chains of its 5,000 year imperial system and launched a republic. 1911, arguably, is the year that modern China, in both thought and practice, was born. Knowing about that context is highly helpful for understanding the “freedom” in “A Time for Freedom”. After all, the segment references the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki (in which Qing China ceded Taiwan to Japan), relies on the culturally ingrained practice of concubinage, and even makes oblique references to a certain “Mr Liang”, who may or may not be renowned Chinese reformist Liang Qichao.
Furthermore, “A Time for Freedom” is also stylistically unconventional. It has absolutely no spoken dialog, and instead displays its characters’ words on title cards. I found this a reasonable choice given title cards’ associations with the silent cinema of yesteryear, but at the same time there’s the potential that such a technique would be too hokey for some. Regardless, the quiet piano that wafts in the background (when our courtesan is not signing along to the sanxian) does a relatively good job of preventing that hokey potential from coming to life, and helps the segment retain its intended gravitas.
Freedom then suddenly becomes youth with the roar of a motorcycle atop an expressway. “A Time for Youth” is loud, but in a most melancholy fashion. Our protagonists are now an epileptic female singer and a photographer. She, who turns out to be bisexual, is having an affair with him. Together, they whiz through the cluttered, dark maze of contemporary Taipei, though what for is up in the air. The resulting plot attempts to be innovative and modern but, while highly intriguing, is also noticeably more muddy than that of “A Time for Love”. While plot construction may be slightly jumbled, Hou again shines in the field of sound. Taipei’s urban soundtrack is on full display here, down to the whistles of traffic cops. Music also plays a huge role in “A Time for Youth”; Hou uses trip-hop pieces from the Taiwanese indie group KbN (who were immensely difficult to discover since they’re not overtly credited) to create a magnificent echo chamber of anomie for his characters to reside in.
On this note, I’m immensely glad that (thanks to Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive) I was able to see Three Times in an actual theater. The thumping beats from “A Time for Youth”, the delicate piano beneath “A Time for Freedom”, and the passionate pieces woven into “A Time for Love”—all of that came gloriously alive thanks to surround sound and high-quality audio equipment that I will probably never be wealthy enough to purchase. The film is also visually stunning. Each shot appears carefully composed, whether with creamy bokeh backgrounds of romantic rainy nights or with the ultraviolet hallways of Taipei apartments.
Three Times may not be a venerated old classic like A City of Sadness, but it is yet another solid, beautiful piece from Hou Hsiao-hsien. Especially given its first narrative, it is, on balance, far more accessible to general audiences than many of Hou’s older pieces. Therefore, the film’s strength lies in striking a rare balance between art and entertainment, tugging at both heartstrings and the brain, stimulating both eyes and ears, juggling stories both near and far.
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The trailer for Three Times
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Three Times (Chinese: 最好的時光)—Taiwan. First released May 2005. Running time 2hrs 19min. Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien. Starring Shu Qi and Chang Chen.