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 the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc in PAL format and the DVD is Region 2 encoded.

As is customary with Hou Hsaio-hsien films, the cinematography by Mark Lee Ping-Bin (In The Mood For Love, At The Height of Summer) is simply ravishing, and Artificial Eye gives Three Times a transfer that is entirely worthy of it. There is not a mark, not an artefact, no blurring or compression artefacts. Colours are rich and evocative of the respective moods of each of the three sections of the film, with a fine level of sharpness, clarity and detail. Virtually flawless.

The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, but it is practically mono for the larger part of the film. Nonetheless, the sound design opens the film out at appropriate points, spreading music across the front speakers and being gently enveloping.

English subtitles are provided, in a clear white font and are optional.

The main extra feature is the Interview with Hou Hsaio-hsien (25:48). It’s a fine interview, covering many aspects of the film. The whole idea behind was to represent what the director felt were historical periods he considered the best eras in Taiwanese history, and attempt to capture their essence as people experience them. He also talks about his casting of Chang Chen and Shu Qi (who I personally consider a rather poor actress - but she has presence and Hou is clearly able to work with this). Filmed at Cannes, it also contains footage of the stars at the premiere. The remainder of the extra features consist of an interesting rather than a compelling Trailer (2:32), and Filmographies for Hou Hsaio-hsien and Shu Qi.

Comparison to Hong Kong Region 0
The quality of the First Distributions Hong Kong edition is notoriously bad. Looking like a cinema print, the image suffers from an interlaced transfer, dulled colours, a few marks here and there and serious problems with the Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack. It’s only in comparison to this new Artificial Eye release however, that you can see just how poor the Hong Kong edition really is. Comparison screenshots can be seen below, the HK First Distributions edition first, followed by the UK Artificial Eye.

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. Artificial Eye’s edition of the film is fabulous, fully allowing the sumptuous visuals and the soundtrack to convey the film’s inner beauty.

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