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Film artistry defines ‘Times’

Erin McGinn | Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Love – an emotion that connects people across time and place. But in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s latest film “Three Times,” he argues that love actually is fully dependent on the elements of time and place.

In “Three Times,” Hsiao-hsien uses the same two actors, Qi Shu (“The Transporter”) and Chen Chang (“2046”), as the central relationship in three separate stories taking place in three different time periods.

Hsiao-hsien says that he came up with the first section of “Three Times” after dreaming of being in a pool hall and hearing the Platters’ classic song “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Like legendary director Martin Scorsese, Hsiao-hsien’s use of music and imagery punctuates his stories with vividness and beauty. Seeing the movie is like watching a dream, where every shot is nearly perfect with composition and color.

The first section, called “A Time for Love,” takes place in 1966. It follows Chen (Chang), a soldier who frequents pool halls while on leave and subsequently writes love letters to the pool-hall girls while on duty. When he returns from leave, he finds that his most recent love interest has been replaced in the hall by the quiet and breathtaking May (Shu). Although their interaction is limited, he promises to write her while he is away. When he returns once more from leave, he finds that she has been replaced, and he travels through several towns in order to find her for just one night. Shot in rich colors and with a musical score composed of classic songs by the Platters and Aphrodite’s Child (“Rain and Tears”), “A Time for Love” is a sweetly romantic masterpiece.

The second part, “A Time for Freedom” – while spectacularly filmed like the rest of the movie – makes its cinematic mark as a recreation of a silent film. Set in 1911, Hsiao-hsien returns to the concubine era of his earlier work, “Flowers of Shanghai,” to tell the story of a diplomat, Mr. Chang, whose political leanings are generally liberal. He offers to help the married son of a prominent family buy the contract of a concubine whom he got pregnant in order for her to marry him.

Chang, however, does not apply these liberal traits to his own life, as he tries to restrain his feelings for the concubine he frequents. Up until the last three minutes of this portion, the only sounds heard are that of a piano and an old Taiwanese love song, as all of the dialogue is conveyed with title cards.

Lastly stands “A Time for Youth.” Taking place in 2005 Taipei, it is a present-day cacophony of emotional and sexual tribulations. Jing (Shu), a bisexual pop singer, is cheating on her girlfriend with her photographer, Zhen (Chang). They write poems to each other and sneak away for late-night trysts while their significant others grapple with being unloved.

In great contrast to the first two sections, where there is little outright communication, here there are voicemails and text messages incessantly thrown about between the pieces of this love triangle. Despite the communication, these characters are the least connected and easily the most miserable.

Although very different in tone, style and content from each other, what ties the three sections together is the use of the same two actors as the leads in each period. Seeing their transformation and how they relate in each time frame conveys Hsiao-hsien’s overarching message that people are formed by the period in which they live. It is a meditation and reflection on not only love, but on time. It emphasizes that love is not the same from one age to the next – it is always changing, and not always for the best.