Three Times Review

Originally intended to be a triptych of short films, scheduling difficulties with the other directors led Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien to make all three parts of Three Times himself. In doing so, Hou’s took the opportunity to give the film a greater coherency by using the same principal actors in each three different time periods the film covers. Set in 1966, 1911 and 2005, Three Times consequently serves as a summary of themes and ideas the director has explored in a number of his previous films

A Time For Love is set in southern Taiwan in the summer of 1966. While the rest of China is undergoing the Cultural Revolution, life is a bit different for those away from the mainland on the off-shore island of Taiwan during this period, the characters in this section of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s film spending their time playing billiards and snooker while the laid-back music of Western crooners plays out in the background. May (Shu Qi) works in a pool-hall in Kaohsiung, playing the table with Chen (Chang Chen), a young man who is waiting to be called up on military service. After he joins the army, Chen keeps up a correspondence with the young girl, remembering the easy, relaxed days in the pool-hall. Later, on a day’s leave, he returns to the hall hoping to meet May again, and on being told that she has moved on, he sets out to find her.

Set almost entirely in a single room, in semi-darkness, where nothing much happens apart from a couple of games of pool and snooker being played and scarcely a word being exchanged between the main characters for long periods, it’s hard to believe just how successfully Hou manages to recreate the mood of a certain time and place and characteristically infuse it with warmth and beauty. A Time For Love looks back fondly on a simpler time in life, not as a nostalgic ideal, but with the sense of it being an uncomplicated time for youth and beginnings. It’s all there, captured in the 60’s pop soundtrack, in the slow languid camera movements, in the measured pace of the film and in the rhythm of the pool playing, lit by the glow of an overhead pool-table light.

The second part of the film, A Time For Freedom is set in 1911, during the period when Taiwan was still under the rule of Japan. A young courtesan (Shu Qi) entertains a wealthy businessman, Mr. Chang (Chang Chen) in a parlour house. Like her colleague Ah Mei, the courtesan hopes that Mr. Chang might secure her freedom from the house, by taking her as a concubine. The young man’s ideas of freedom however, are linked with those of his employer, Mr. Liang, a newspaper man who writes articles supporting the liberation of Taiwan from Japan.

Filmed as a silent movie with intertitles and a music score – apparently through necessity since there wasn’t time to teach the actors the particular Taiwanese dialect of the period - A Time For Freedom is ironically the most ‘talkie’ part of Three Times. But talking is not the same as communicating, and other factors stand on the way of the main characters being free to conduct what we would consider a normal male/female relationship, through the strict guidelines formalising relationships between men and women and the restrictions of living in a country occupied by a foreign power.

The third part of the film A Time For Youth is set in the present-day, in Taipei in 2005. Jing (Shu Qi) is a pop singer/songwriter. Having been born prematurely, she suffers from epilepsy and is gradually losing her sight in one eye. She has a girlfriend lover, Micky, but is also seeing Zhen (Chang Chen), a photographer who also runs her website. The two protagonists are free to express themselves with every means of communication available to them, but seem to be unable to make any real connection with the world around them, leaving behind them a trail of wrecked relationships.

A Time For Youth is for Hou Hsiao-hsien, the whole point of Three Times, the other parts only being there to put it into context. The approach to male/female relationships is different in each part of the film and each consequently informs the other. In 1966, the boy and girl are hesitant, hovering around each other, with only the slightest and briefest of contacts being made between them. May however is only an ideal for the young man – an employee who is paid to play with the young men who come into the pool-hall and a memory of a happier time in his life – and the relationship is similarly idealised. In 1911, the relationships shown are constrained by strict guidelines for behaviour, where the courtesan belongs to the owner of a parlour house or brothel and can only have her “freedom”, by being purchased by a rich patron as a concubine. In 2005 then, everyone has greater freedom and means of expression, free to conduct bisexual relationships, and have complete freedom to communicate their thoughts and ideas – in song lyrics, in slogans, in notices, in the emergency information Jing wears around her neck, in photographs, digital communications and text messages. But despite this, the young couple are not happy or really connecting – and for all the various means of communication available, scarcely one spoken word actually passes between them throughout this section of the film – and the characters move relentlessly on, on a self-destructive trajectory.

These are all themes and time periods that Hou Hsiao-hsien has visited before – the autobiographical subject matter of pool-playing boys in the 1960’s flirting with girls, waiting to be called up for military service goes back to 1983’s The Boys From Fengkuei; the contrast between the personal and emotional life of the courtesans in a parlour house and the power struggles of the men who frequent it is a revisit of the period and subject matter of Flower’s Of Shanghai (1998); while the subject of modern-day alienation of youth is elaborated on - or maybe just drawn-out further - in Hou’s Millennium Mambo (2001), which also stars Shu Qi. Gathered here however, these are not three distinct and unconnected parts – as the very fact of the two lead actors being consistent throughout should indicate. Putting all these together in one film creates an entirely different impression, a cumulative effect that draws a common line between each of the sections and deepens the intensity of what Hou shows about modern day life in the final part of the film. Regardless of the warmth and affection he shows in his beautiful depictions of the earlier parts of the film, it is only this last part that counts for the director, Hou wanting to speak of our lives in the here and now, of what it means to be human, to have a past, to have memories and to be connected through history.

Three Times is released in Hong Kong by First Distributions. The disc is in NTSC format and is not region encoded.

The film is transferred anamorphically at 1.78:1. The overall quality of the image and the transfer is not great, but it is not bad either, having all the hallmarks of a cinema print. It’s consequently a little dark and murky when transferred to DVD. Colours have reasonably good tones, particularly in the early segments of the film, but they are not particularly well-defined. Marks and scratches are evident, but they are few and scarcely make an impression. Artefacting is an issue in as far as there is some minor shimmer and line breakup, with juddering, movement trails. In many respects, this is not unlike the Chinese Sinomovie edition of Café Lumière and like that, the image nevertheless captures the mood, location and period-feel of each location reasonably well.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 is similarly, well ...rough and basic. It is practically mono with no real separation, not even for the music score which is prominent throughout. There is an audible level of background noise and crackle in quieter passages for the first half of the film, but it’s scarcely troublesome for the larger part of this. It only becomes evident quite how bad it is when it stops at about 1 hour 17 minutes into the film. Dialogue is still clear throughout, as are the music pieces used in the film. Not high quality then, but reasonably effective.

Optional English subtitles in a white font are provided for the film and are fine, translating the film without any problems of grammar, syntax or spelling.

The extra features are not extensive, but what is here that can be read in English is interesting. The Trailer (2:41) is without dialogue and has both English and Chinese titles. A Photo Gallery (1:33), presents images in anamorphic 16:9 widescreen. Biographies are provided for the Director, Cast and Crew both in English and Chinese text, as are informative introductions for The Film, split into Prelude and Synopsis sections, and a brief text Director’s Statement. The Director’s Interview (21:46) is in Mandarin and has no subtitles.

Despite showing the vast differences in how male/female relationships are conducted in each distant time period, the three stories shown here are not three unconnected, separate films. Three Times summarises the essence of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s work, drawing together themes he has explored in earlier films into one single movie. Together they show more clearly than ever the whole sweep of Hou’s vision, his explorations and meditations on our past, our history and our memories and how they make us who we are today. Yet to see a theatrical release here, the Hong Kong DVD is therefore the only way to see this film at present. It does not do justice to the beautiful visualisations of each time period created lovingly by the director with his regular cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bin, but the film’s essential tone and message is nonetheless perfectly clear.

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Last updated: 01/05/2018 10:11:33

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