The films of the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien have dealt alternately with the tumultuous periods of Taiwan’s past and the pressing problems of its present, but the multi-stranded narrative structure of Three Times (2005) provided the director with the ideal opportunity to address both his historical interests and contemporary concerns. Hou made his directorial debut with Lovable Girl (1980), but emerged as a leading light on the international festival circuit with A Time to Live, A Time to Die (1985) which detailed the life of a family forced to move to Taiwan from the Chinese mainland in 1948; by drawing on his childhood experiences, Hou crafted a quietly powerful account of adolescent innocence evolving into disillusionment through the cultural dislocation that is caused by enforced exile. This semi-autobiographical tone is characteristic of Hou’s work, although he has also explored the history of Taiwan during the years of Japanese occupation with The Puppetmaster (1993) and Flowers of Shanghai (1998), both of which won numerous international awards. The critical response to Millennium Mambo (2001) – an excursion into contemporary club culture – was comparatively mixed, but Hou’s neon-lit navigation of Taipei’s nightlife has since developed a cult following. Despite admiration from the critical establishment, Hou’s films have not always received the level of attention that they so richly deserve from mainstream audiences in the West; the decades-spanning Three Times (2005) is very much a watershed film in that it received proper theatrical distribution in the United States through IFC, thereby paving the way for his subsequent crossover success with the Paris-set Flight of the Red Balloon (2008), while also allowing Hou to revisit certain themes, time frames and cinematic techniques.
Hou’s struggle to find a receptive audience beyond the festival circuit prior to Three Times has much to do with his aesthetic sensibility and approach to subject matter, which are inexorably intertwined. Although Hou’s films are steeped in political context, the director is less interested in the key events that have shaped the social-economic structure of Asia than he is in the people on the periphery; his stories are often set in the build-up to, or the come-down from, periods of critical change, rather than at the peak of the political climate and his characters are treated as people rather than as mouthpieces. Sex is a recurrent subject, but although this is one of the most marketable elements of world cinema, Hou’s films are not particularly explicit; an emphasis is instead placed on physical longing – beautifully conveyed by the subtle behaviour of his actors – as emotions are frequently confused or repressed due to issues of personal and political identity. Most pertinently, Hou also favours takes of almost ten minutes in length, which may make his films infuriating experiences for those viewers who have neither the have patience to follow his meticulously detailed mise-en-scène, or the willingness to surrender to his cinematic rhythm.
With regards to these aspects of Hou’s oeuvre, Three Times is not necessarily any more accessible than his earlier offerings, but its multi-stranded structure (three stories that take place in the years of 1911, 1966 and 2005) engages the audience, perhaps misleadingly, as a ‘puzzle narrative’ as viewers try to make the crucial connections between the story strands. It also finds Hou working with two internationally established actors in Shu Qi and Chen Chang, who play the main characters in each of the three stories. His choice of leading lady marks a reunion with Shu, who is best known for cheerfully kicking her way through such flashy action pictures such as So Close (2002) and Seoul Raiders (2005), but has demonstrated a more haunting quality in Hou’s Millennium Mambo and Fatih Akin’s segment of New York, I Love You (2009), while Chang has appeared in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (1997) and 2046 (2004).
In the 1966-set ‘A Time for Love’, Chen (Chang) is a young man preparing to leave to undertake his military service, spending his final days of civilian life at his local pool hall. One afternoon, he meets May (Shu), a beautiful attendant and, feeling drawn to her, asks if he can write to her from his base. She agrees, and when Chen is allocated some leave, he returns to the pool hall to take her out on a date, only to discover that she has moved to another establishment. Chen takes a ferry to find her, but discovers that she has also left that place of employment. Fortunately, one of her former co-workers provides him with May’s mother’s address, and she in turn informs him of May’s current place of work. Finally locating May in the evening, Chen is able to take her out for dinner, but only has a few hours in her company as he has to catch a long distance bus to avoid being classed as absent without leave by the military.
Hou emphasises the daily routine of the pool hall, with May preparing for a day which will be much the same as the one before it by opening the sliding doors, brushing down the tables, and preparing the balls and the chalk. There are some similarities with Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild (1990), which was set in and around the pool halls of 1960s Hong Kong, but Hou’s slowing down of time to recreate, and revel in, a lost moment of history contrasts with Wong’s feverish combination of blurred compositions and jump-cuts. What the two directors do have in common is a love of the music of the period, and a willingness to let it speak for their characters; ‘Smoke gets in your Eyes’ by The Platters and ‘Rain and Tears’ by Aphrodite’s Child lend an emotional accessibility to a slight story most told in potentially distancing long shot, with the central couple often surrounded by the other patrons of the pool hall. The character of Chen is a Hou substitute, as the director fell in love with a pool hall girl before setting off to undertake military service, only for her to eventually marry another man. With ‘A Time for Love’, Hou assembles an idealised memory, allowing the central couple only one evening together, but closing the story as they hold hands whilst waiting for Chen’s bus, rather than detailing their loss of contact. These final moments, which are accompanied by the rhapsodic ‘Rain and Tears’, have a bittersweet innocence that encapsulates the director’s memories of youth, and exhibit an overwhelming optimism which is largely absent from the segments that follow.
The events of ‘A Time for Freedom’ take place in 1911, at which point Taiwan had been under Japanese rule for sixteen years; this political situation is very much reflected by the personal circumstances of Ah Mei (Shu), a geisha who has been groomed since childhood and knows little of life beyond the brothel in which she lives and works. Ah Mei is in love with Mr. Chang (Chang), a Shanghai-based diplomat who has written articles that fiercely oppose the notion of the concubine, yet still visits the brothel. However, her feelings for this contradictory customer are not reciprocated; Ah Mei patiently yearns for a normal relationship with Mr. Chang, but the object of her affection is more interested in revolution than romance, and too focused on freedom from Japanese rules and a permanent return to Shanghai to consider a life with Ah Mei.
In terms of its time period, ‘A Time for Freedom’ is a return by Hou to the territory of Flowers of Shanghai, which captured the stifling atmosphere of four ‘flower houses’, and the repressed emotions of their courtesans and patrons. ‘A Time for Freedom’ makes aesthetic reference to the earlier film with tinted photography and a use of title cards, while it also achieves an erotically-charged atmosphere at the expense of any actual on-screen sex. The camera work in both Flowers of Shanghai and ‘A Time for Freedom’ is entirely static; characters are framed together in medium shots to allow the audience to appreciate the subtle interplay between them, emphasising social hierarchy through staging and mannerisms. However, the use of title cards in Flowers of Shanghai is extended to a use of dialogue cards in ‘A Time for Freedom’; these cards convey Mr. Chang’s concern for social change in mainland China, enabling Hou to contextualise the relationship between Ah Mei and Mr. Chang without leaving the confines of the brothel. By adopting the filmmaking practises of an earlier era and filtering them through his own observational sensibility, the second segment of Three Times succeeds as a hybrid of silent cinema and still life with Hou suggesting that 1911 was a time to consider complicated issues, not to engage with pure emotions.
‘A Time for Youth’ fast-forwards to 2005 to focus on Jing (Shu), a bisexual artist living in Taipei after studying photography in New York. She is intelligent but hedonistic, blind in her right eye and prone to suffering from epileptic fits which require her to carry a medical card at all times. Jing shares an apartment with a female lover who obsessively worships Jing and desires a more committed relationship, but Jing’s other artistic outlet of music has led her into an intensely physical relationship with Zhen (Chang) a photographer who is equally infatuated with her. Unable to articulate or understand her fluctuating emotional state, Jing alternates between her two lovers, often under the influence of alcohol or prescription medication; her inconsiderate attitude has tragic consequences when her live-in lover commits suicide by jumping out of the window of their apartment after leaving Jing a note on their computer.
It is possible to imagine ‘A Time for Youth’ as a sequel of sorts to Hou’s Millennium Mambo, due to its emphasis on downtown decadence and the presence of Shu Qui in the leading role, not to mention the manner in which her character is torn between two very different lovers. However, the character of Jing is more complex than that of Vicky in the earlier film; whereas Vicky was a night club hostess who was comparatively trapped in her relationships with an unemployed slacker who had no qualms about stealing a Rolex watch from his father to pay his debts, and a gangster with connections in Tokyo, Jing is a reckless free spirit who alternates between lovers when she pleases. As with many young people, she is inherently self-contradictory in that she maintains a private persona with regards to her lovers, yet is not afraid to share her life with strangers via the internet; Jing chronicles her life story, her ailments, and her expressive art through her website and writes fiercely personal prose on her blog, whilst refusing to engage in relationships that go beyond the physical level in real life. In ‘A Time for Freedom’, the courtesan and the diplomat engage in a series of discussions, learning about one another without any physical intimacy, while in ‘A Time for Youth’, Jing and the Zhen sleep together within hours of becoming acquainted, with Zhen actually learning more about Jing after their bouts of passion by visiting her website and reading her blog and scanning her profile, which includes Jing’s philosophy of ‘no past, no future, just a hungry present’.
The Taiwanese title of Three Times – Zui hao de shi guang – literally translates as ‘The Best of Times’, and stems from Hou’s musings on the subject of memory. Discussing Three Times in an interview for Artificial Eye’s UK DVD edition, Hou stated, ‘I feel that every era has its own distinctive sense. These eras will never come again. Time keeps moving forward. One’s environment and one’s thoughts keep changing as well. They’ll never come again. It’s not that they’re good times, it’s because we’re recalling them that we call them good times.’ Three Times explores the years of 1911, 1966 and 2005, of which 1966 is the time that the director is obviously most nostalgic for as it represents his own youth and, therefore, the period that he feels was the ‘best time’. Three Times emerged from Hou’s frustrations with politicians and their re-appropriation of modern history to suit their own ambitions, with the director insisting, ‘They’re totally biased, they interpret history for their own gain. I was planning a way to show that the best moments of an era aren’t what the politicians have told us.’ As in Hou’s earlier films, the politics of Three Times largely exist off-screen, with the director exploring memory in miniature rather than straining to realise a social-political canvas.
Casting the same actors in each segment invites immediate comparisons between the relationships that are depicted, but Hou also links his stories through recurrent motifs; letters (written on paper in the first and second segments, sent by email and text in the third), lights (the pool hall, the brothel, the photographer’s modernist studio apartment), and traveling across distances (the soldier riding his bike, taking the ferry and walking, the diplomat’s discussion of returning to Shanghai, the singer and the photographer speeding across the central bridge on his motorcycle). Music is also utilised throughout, with emotive pop songs in the first segment leading to a score that is evocative of the period in the second, and pulsating club rhythms in the third, while the emotions expressed in the trip-hop songs in ‘A Time to Love’ are more tangled and elusive than those articulated by the pure pop in ‘A Time for Love’, with meaning and resonance buried beneath the deliberately distorted production. Walking down corridors, the lighting of lamps and candles, the performance of music (Ah Mei sings in the brothel, Jing sings in a fashionable bar) are further repetitions which serve to link these three stories, although meaning is perhaps found in Hou’s organisation of his time frames rather than his aesthetic arrangements.
As this article shows, the stories in Three Times are not presented in chronological order, with the 1911 segment coming after the segment set in 1966. This reflects Hou’s attitude towards the levels of complexity in relationships in different time periods. In ‘A Time for Love’, Chen and May are free to be together, if only for a short period, with their obstacles being Chen’s military service and the physical distance that Chen has to cover in order to find May again after she moves to a different pool hall. Matters become more awkward in ‘A Time for Freedom’ as the feelings between Mr. Chang and Ah Mei are complicated by their respective social positions of diplomat and geisha and the different forms of freedom – political and personal – that they aspire to. In ‘A Time for Youth’, it is not the lack of freedom but the abundance of it which causes problems for Jing, while the variety of communication tools, such as cell phones and the internet, only adds to the confusion. By comparison to the two segments that follow, ‘A Time for Love’ represents a time before society was burdened by the technological advances of the information age, but also after it had shaken off some of the social hierarchisation of the earlier part of the century.
While his previous film, the Tokyo-located Café Lumière (2003), was a tribute to the cinema of Yasujirō Ozu, Three Times is related to Hou’s previous work in a manner which is at once self-referential and progressive. Hou’s subsequent film, Flight of the Red Balloon, may not have been possible without the self-reflexivity of Three Times; set and shot in Paris, Flight of the Red Balloon would be Hou’s first experience of filming in Europe, a significant departure which furthers the assertion that Three Times is a summative work. Each segment of Three Times expresses Hou’s view that, while the social-political landscape of Taiwan has changed dramatically throughout the past century, the personal needs of the Taiwanese people have not. These segments also show that history has a way of shaping the lives of individuals, even when these lonely souls seek sanctuary in such social cocoons as pool halls, ‘flower houses’, and nightclubs. While each segment is a beautifully distilled piece of cinema in itself, the film as a whole is both visually sumptuous and thematically satisfying; Three Times may not represent closure for its director, it but certainly serves as the ideal entry point for those still unfamiliar with the oeuvre of a remarkable filmmaker.