Tuesday, April 17, 2007


Triptyching the light so-so

By Edward Copeland
I'd heard many good things about Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times as one of 2006's unsung films and it certainly did take awhile before it became available for me to see it. A trilogy of stories linked mainly by the same two lead actors, Shu Qi and Chang Chen, it suffers from the problem that nearly every film comprised of separate, nonlinked stories suffer from: Some parts are better than others, so the end result inevitably leaves mixed feelings about the work as a whole.

The first segment, "A Time for Love" set in 1966, is the simplest and the sweetest, telling the tale of a soldier heading off to the Army (Chen) and a young woman he meets at a pool hall (Qi) before leaving for his service. Later, when he gets a brief leave, he endures an arduous path to track her back down in hopes of continuing their tentative romance.

The mood is innocent and touching, including great use of the classic American 1950s hit "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." Very little happens, but the result is moving, getting Three Times off to a solid start.

The next segment, "A Time for Freedom," backtracks to 1911 to tell the story of a budding friendship between a prostitute in a brothel and a man who frequently visits here. What makes this story unusual is that Hou Hsiao-hsien films it as if it's a silent film.

There is continuous music, but all dialogue appears on title cards, with the actors voices never heard, except when the prostitute sings. The results ends up being more an interesting experiment than a satisfying one.

For his final tale, "A Time for Youth," the director leaps to 2005 to tell the story of a highly charged, sexual relationship between a photographer and a pop singer who also happens to be epileptic.

I suspect that Hou Hsiao-hsien is trying to say that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The relationships in all three stories involve missed opportunities or thoughtlessness on the part of one of both parties and are hampered either by the situations they are in or, in the 2005 tale, even technology.

I just wish the entire package held together better than it does. I suspect he decided to forgo chronological order by putting the 1966 tale first because he realized it was the strongest, but the side effect is that after those 45 minutes or so, boredom and impatience set in. It's well shot and acted, but as with many compendium of stories, one towers above the others.

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