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“A Time for Celebration”: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Three Times”

"A Time for Celebration": Hou Hsiao-hsien's "Three Times"

The buzz coming out of Cannes last year was that “Three Times,” a triptych of love stories set in different periods, would finally nab Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien a long deserved Palme d’Or. Hou left empty-handed, but eventually landed a prize just as evasive: a U.S. release. A recapitulation of career-long themes and tropes, “Three Times” finds Hou in a self-reflexive mode. As each of the film’s segments informs the others, so does the movie engage Hou’s filmography. Setting a love story in three different eras with the same leads seems gimmicky at first glance, but the concept is a form fit for Hou. The greatest chronicler of our mortality, Hou makes movies that are attuned to the implacability of the past and the impermanence of the present.

“Three Times” opens in a pool hall in 1966. The Platters‘ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” serenades the players; nostalgia suffuses the scene. Titled “A Time for Love,” it outdoes “Millennium Mambo“‘s opening frolic as Hou’s best Wong Kar-wai impression, planting us in the realm of consecrated memory. Over a laid-back game, an imperceptible attraction develops between a military recruit (Chang Chen) and a pool-hall girl (Shu Qi, fast shaping up as Hou’s muse). “Time flies,” he writes her. So do people. When he returns to the pool hall after a sojourn, he discovers that she has left, inaugurating a cross-country odyssey. One of Hou’s loveliest metaphors for the transience of our earthly state, “A Time for Love” preserves the unforgettable moment even as it reminds us of its passing–a paradox indelibly rendered in the juxtaposition of the stasis of pool halls with the forward momentum of boats, bikes, and trains. The penultimate image, a tentative handhold against the play of lights on rain-slicked pavement, is dipped in nostalgic embellishment, but doesn’t feel cheap. Finding love in circumstances that militate against it only seems to deepen its value, Hou suggests–a hopeful subtext that will later serve as a rebuke.

More inhibiting is the social structure that defines the second section. “A Time for Freedom” takes us to a brothel in 1911–Hou’s “Flowers of Shanghai” revisited. But there’s a crucial difference: this time, the scenario plays out as a silent film. (A quibble: the segment isn’t filmed in silent film’s visual vernacular–it keeps Hou’s long-take style, with not a single shot-reverse shot–a choice that mars the movie’s commentary about how popular art memorializes our romantic visions.) The most overtly political of the three, “A Time for Freedom” pairs Shu’s courtesan with Chang’s writer-activist, who is pushing for Taiwan’s independence from Japan. Conveying the dialogue through intertitles, Hou literalizes the recondite nature of their ritualized transactions. Aesthetic pleasure is never divorced from meaning. Ozu-like pillow shots mark the passage of time and the emptiness of space; a shot of a courtesan warming her hands from dying embers is a diaphanous vision of loneliness. Surprisingly blatant for the elliptical Hou (even the title is too thickly ironic), “A Time for Freedom” foregrounds the inextricability of the personal from the political that has marked the director’s work. The kept woman suffers in silence, even as her lover fights for a people’s freedom.

An abrupt cut from the courtesan’s room to a speeding motorbike seems to portend a change for the better. But in Hou’s design, the freedom of the present is no less tyrannical. In “A Time for Youth,” Shu plays an epileptic rock singer whose nights are a succession of nightclubs, hook-ups, and lovers’ quarrels. Recalling “Millennium Mambo,” the segment depicts the present as a world unmoored–from history, from value, from meaning. Shu’s rock goddess has a girlfriend whose calls go unreturned; the man she beds also has a lover. Although it’s a world of cell phones and e-mail, technology has hardly advanced communication past the evasions of the silent past.

A scene from Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Three Times.” Image courtesy of IFC Films.

The irony is that this is the most free of the worlds Hou presents, one in which a girl can love another girl and carnal desire is freely expressed. It’s the bleakest of Hou’s films–and where I part ways with “Three Times.” For the first time in Hou’s movies, there’s a whiff of stern judgment. In “Good Men, Good Women” and “Goodbye South, Goodbye,” the follies of the present are viewed with a dispassionate but comprehending eye, and “Millennium Mambo”‘s dour vision was leavened by the masterful touch of an exhausted murmur narrating from the future. Here, Hou never quite finds the line between depicting youthful posturing and resembling it. Nevertheless, Hou has created a cinema that forces us to think about the connections between the personal and the political, the past and the present, and memory and the movies. In “A Time for Freedom,” Chang’s writer reads a poem: “Although this place has torn my heart asunder, it is wrenching to leave it.” It’s an epigram that sums up Hou’s project, finding sorrow in the limits of human experience, but solace in its timelessness.

[Elbert Ventura is a Reverse Shot staff writer and is also a frequent contributor to the New Republic Online.]

Take 2
by Jeff Reichert

“Flowers of Shanghai” has so consistently ranked among my absolute favorite films that I almost want to begrudge “Three Times” for so neatly condensing that earlier masterwork into a mere 40 minutes, and even building upon its greatness by assuming the trappings of silent cinema. Old habits do die hard, but they shouldn’t stand in the way of appreciating a masterpiece–if “Three Times” encapsulates everything that’s necessary and essential about “Flowers of Shanghai,” “Millennium Mambo,” and “Dust in the Wind” across its three segments, it shouldn’t be merely assumed that Hou’s reached a point of economy in his filmmaking that he feels the need to play revisionist with his own oeuvre. It’s rather that he’s gotten so good–no, great–at managing his elliptical narratives that he’s now able to overstuff his work to a point heretofore impossible to imagine even as he’s continually paring it down.

Lucky for us, since I’d rather see a filmmaker like Hou deliver a tripartite “sampler” of his core concerns than just about any other director working (I’m now imagining the overwhelming horror of a Todd Solondz triple threat…). Labeling “Three Times” a sampler is something of a misnomer–a summation might be more precise, as Hou’s triptych is tightly wound, and not just by the repeated presence of Shu Qi and Chang Chen or the references to his earlier works. The palimpsestual nature of “Three Times” leaves a sensation of simultaneous expansion and collapse both within his narratives and with the possibilities of the form. No cinema has ever seemed so luscious as his first section, “A Time for Love,” at least until one reaches his second “A Time for Freedom.” And if the grittier “A Time for Youth” feels something of a bitter pill in comparison, there are concerns as dire in the preceding two, and moments in “Youth” that surpass them both for beauty, utterly confounding the nostalgic impulse. I’ve heard a rumor that the order of the three isn’t even especially important to Hou, the sure sign of a confident filmmaker who knows he’s created three flawless, interlocking gems–I bet “Three Times” would be just as beautiful viewed from any and every angle.

[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He currently works for Magnolia Pictures.]

A scene from Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Three Times.” Image courtesy of IFC Films.

Take 3
by Chris Wisniewksi

Two-thirds of the way through Hou Hsiao-hsien’s masterpiece “Three Times,” the image of a concubine, standing alone in a brothel in 1911, fades to black, replaced by the rumble of a highway in contemporary Taipei, as two lovers cling to each other on a motorcycle. In this single, sublime edit, Hou catapults us across a century of political and cinematic history, moving from colonial occupation to postcolonial anxiety, and from the gorgeous formalism of silent tableaux to the aesthetic chaos of the contemporary cityscape. Improbably, the transition is as natural as it is astonishing–Hou makes us feel, somehow, as though he’s revealing cinema’s manifest destiny, that telling a story across the vast reaches of history is not simply possible but essential, that almost every other film is half-told by comparison.

Three stories, each essentially a love story; three eras; the same two actors (Chang Chen, and the impossibly gorgeous Shu Qi, who is wonderful throughout). This may sound high concept, but in practice, there’s never really a question of Hou’s pulling it off. “Three Times,” for all its rapturous imagery, is, in its most basic form, montage writ large; it reveals itself not through narrative (or imagistic) progression but through collision. Hou mines his native country’s history and his own oeuvre not to summarize but to bring the past into dialogue with the present.

The first “time,” “A Time for Love”, embarks upon this project unassumingly; it’s a light, almost breezy romance set in 1966 to the intoxicating tune of the Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and Aphrodite’s Child‘s “Rain and Tears.” Hou seduces us into false complacency with “A Time for Love;” in the two times that follow, romance gives way to oppression and, later, alienation. As Hou upends our expectations, he also invites us to reexamine what came before. Indeed, to denigrate “A Time for Freedom” and “A Time for Youth” while praising the first is to miss the point of the film altogether: History is never really past but always here and now, a document constantly being (re)written; the present is ephemeral, an image that ceases to exist even before it’s apprehended; and the cinema, at its very best (and “Three Time”s is just that), exists somewhere in between–an enduring record, a fleeting moment, an inevitable fade to black.

[Chris Wisniewski is a Reverse Shotstaff writer, and has written for Interview and Publishers Weekly .]

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