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The politics of love, loss and hope
A region 2 DVD review of THREE TIMES / ZUI HAO DE SHI QUANG by Slarek
 

It's fair to say that in critical circles, or at least a fair few of them, the work of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien is held in very high regard. He is not without his detractors, of course, many of whom were were openly dismissive of his 2003 Ozu tribute Café Lumiére [Kôhi Jikô], a minimalist study of the small details of everyday life that emulated Ozu's style, but not his warmth and engagement with character. To get the most out of Café Lumiére it's best to forget the whole Ozu connection, which Hou appears to have used as a springboard to go his own sweet cinematic way.

There may be more narrative to his three-story latest, Three Times [Zui hao de shi guang], but minimalism is still the name of the game, and if you're looking for tales with complex twists and turns then you've picked up the wrong DVD. These are three stories of relationships from three different time periods, the lead characters played in each by the same two actors. All are seemingly simple in structure and all are left teasingly incomplete.

The first tale, A Time for Love, is set in 1966 and centres around Chen, a young man heading off for military service who, before departing, attempts to express his feelings to Haruko, a woman who hangs around the snooker hall he has been frequenting. When he returns on leave, Haruko has gone, but Chen soon becomes enraptured by her successor, May. Again he is called back to service – is history destined to repeat itself? A Time for Freedom takes place in a brothel in 1911, when Taiwan was under Japanese control. Ah Mei is a concubine who has fallen for one of her regular clients, Chang, a diplomat and activist whose passion for political change appears to have blinded him to to the feelings of the woman whose company he enjoys. A Time for Youth lands us in 2005, where bisexual singer Jing neglects the feelings of her girlfriend when she starts an affair with photographer Zhen.

Despite a similarity in pacing, the three stories each have their specific stylistic tics. A Time for Love, with its warm tones, emotive use of period pop ballads and playfully hesitant approach to what may or may not develop into a relationship, has more than a hint of Wong Kar-Wai about it (the film's cinematographer, Pin Bing Lee, also shot Wong's In the Mood for Love, another tale of hesitant love) and is unquestionably the most warm-hearted and fully formed of the three tales, one tinged perhaps with nostalgia for a more innocent time (it is, Hou reveals in the interview on this disc, based on an experience of his own when he was awaiting military service). The first half of the tale takes place largely within the snooker hall where Chen first meets May and is observed from a single viewpoint, placing us almost in the position of a bystander who pieces the story together from the fragments they observe and overhear. It's a pleasingly subtle and involving approach that appropriately matches Chen's own uncertainty, and its use of Rain and Tears by Aphrodite's Child had me humming the track for some time after the film had ended.

A Time for Freedom is almost unique in modern dramatic cinema in playing effectively as a silent film, with all dialogue muted and represented by intertitles, the soundtrack comprised of gentle piano music and the songs of the concubines, which is the only 'live' sound in the piece. Hou states that this approach was chosen because he wanted the period dialect to be authentic and there was not enough time for the actors to learn it. As a cinematic device it is inevitably a little distancing, a layer of artificiality that provides us with the words but not their inflection, but as a symbol of the oppression of freedom and specifically free speech in occupied Taiwan it is nonetheless appropriate. Set entirely inside the brothel and largely in Ah Mei's chamber, it is again structured as a series of time-separated meetings and is an intriguing piece, Ah Mei's dreams of personal freedom being symbolic of those Chang has for his country. This is the only one of the stories in which Hou's intended political undercurrents are clearly evident.

The opening shot of A Time for Youth, as Zhen and his female passenger sit on a motorbike and hurtle down a freeway in modern concrete Taipei, signals a shift in style from the previous two episodes, an opening up to include a wider range of locations, although the pace remains as measured as before. Again you'll be required to piece things together, and it's deceptively easy to lose your way, despite the straightforward narrative – I had to watch it twice to be absolutely sure of just who was involved with who and in what capacity. Music is once again key, with Jing's on-stage number proving surprisingly hard to shift from the head. Sound is also symbolically used, the restrained mix found on the first two stories giving way to the louder, more ear-catching surround sound of modern city life.

As stand-alone stories, only the first really holds its own on narrative terms, and even that leaves us wondering, the first half of a story that could could have multiple outcomes. But all three are designed to be seen in relation to each other, and in that context there is more to chew on. In each case there is a seeming inability to communicate between couples, whether it be due to shyness or self-absorption, and the written word often proves more revealing than its spoken equivalent, with the letters of the first two stories updated to text messages, emails and blogs in the last. The nature of relationships evolves through time, the formality of Chang's meetings with Ah Mei contrasting with the back-to-your-flat-for-a-quick-one affair between Jing and Zhen, the comparative innocence of Chen's pursuit of May held up almost as an idyll. There is certainly a sense here that the time for true love and uncomplicated happiness has come and gone, and it's possible to read the final story as a critique of modern attitudes to relationships, with sex put before love and the bisexual, almost nihilistic Jing unsure of what she really wants and left miserable by the results of her indecision.

There is a continuity that goes beyond the pace, storylines and the performers, one nested in the recurrence of ideas, images and behaviour that alters to suit the different settings and characters. As Chen cycles to the snooker hall, for instance, the camera looks back at him to focus on his cheerful enjoyment of life, while his simple mode of transport feels representative of innocent times. Later the viewpoint is reversed as the camera chases to catch up with stony-faced Zhen, his motorbike a symbol of a technological age, the purpose of his journey to transport his passenger to his apartment for sex. Similarly, in two of the stories the male character is intermittently separated from his female companion by politics, as Chen is called back to military service and Chang travels to further the cause of revolution, but while the former is undertaken with reluctance, the latter is embarked on with enthusiasm. Both men write to their women, but Chang's letters talk not of love, but of his experiences and the changing times.

Whether you share Hou's views on matters of love or not, there is still much here to admire and enjoy, in the direction, the cinematography, the social, political and cultural undercurrents, the atmosphere and sense of place, and especially the performances of Shu Qi and Chang Chen, who in each of the stories create characters that are distinctive enough for you to forget that they are played by the same actors. As with Café Lumiére, there is sometimes the sense that we are being invited to discover layers and meaning to the film that may not actually be there, or at least consciously intended, a view reflected in the wildly varying critical estimates of the film's true content and qualities. It's nonetheless a film experience that for my money is absolutely worth having, as any quibbles I may have with the second and third stories are largely compensated through the handling, the detail, the two lead performances, and A Time for Love, which could, with expansion, make for an intriguing film in its own right.

sound and vision

The imagery in Three Times is the sort that can present real problems for DVD if not encoded with care, with lighting varying from bright daylight exteriors to the lamplight of Ah Mei's quarters or the partial gloom of the snooker hall, but all are reproduced impressively here, with nary a sign of compression artefacts and blacks looking solid whatever the light levels, and with no obvious loss of shadow detail. Sharpness is impressive throughout, and the colour reproduction – as evidenced in the night-time neon of A Time for Youth or the handsome inter-titles of A Time for Freedom – is excellent. The image is framed 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced.

There are two soundtracks available, stereo 2.0 and surround 5.1, both in the original Chinese. The stereo track is noticeably louder than the surround track, which is considerably more subtle in its spread, to the point that I began to prefer the stereo track. But when the third story kicks in the surrounds go to work, landing us slap-bang in the modern age and filling the room with the sounds of the city.

extra features

Interview with Hou Hsiao-hsien (25:48)
What looks like an extra feature from a French DVD release that has been subtitled in English proves an interesting companion to the film, as Hou talks about the stories themselves, the cast, the political and cultural elements, and how closely the first story resembles his own experiences. I'd almost completed my review when I watched this, and was interested to hear him confirm some of the things I'd suspected about the first and last stories. This includes some footage of Hou and his two leads at Cannes.

Three Times Trailer (2:32)
A wordless and appropriately paced promotion cut to the piano music from A Time for Freedom.

There are also Filmographies for Hou Hsiao-hsien and Shu Qi.

summary

A dreamily paced, lovely-looking and always interesting trilogy of tales whose surface simplicity sits atop a seductive suggestiveness that not everyone will respond to and could well be saying less than it seems to suggest. But I really did discover detail and links between the stories on the second viewing that I missed the first time round, and have no doubt will find still more on the third visit, giving the disc definite replay value. And as always with Hou, when it works, it works divinely.

Three Times
Zui hao de shi guang

France / Taiwan 2005
130 mins
director
Hou Hsiao-hsien
starring
Shu Qui
Chang Chen
Fang Me
Liao Su-Jen
Mei Di
Chen Shi-Zheng

DVD details
region 2
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
Chinese
subtitles .
English
extras
Interview with director
Trailer
Filmographies
distributor
Artificial Eye
release date
Out now
review posted
18 January 2007

See all of Slarek's reviews