Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s film may be called Three Times, but for Los Angeles filmgoers who’ve actually heard of it and, even more unlikely, actually want to see it, it’s more like two weeks. After a one-week opening engagement at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills (whose auditorium was nowhere near full when I saw the movie last Saturday night), it switched over to Laemmle’s second-run Fairfax Cinemas, where it is down to two shows daily for the next three days and not likely to see the light of a projector lamp past this coming Thursday. All that, and Three Times still will double the length of the run of the only other Hou picture to screen commercially in Los Angeles, Millennium Mambo, which had a one-week run in 2004, three years after the movie was originally seen overseas.
Not being an overly experienced veteran of Hou’s cinema (I’ve seen only Millennium Mambo and Flowers of Shanghai, both on DVD), I wanted to take advantage of a rare opportunity to see one of the director’s unhurried, visually resplendent films on the big screen. Yes, there is a Hong Kong DVD floating around out there, and no doubt one will be available soon through Green Cine, Nicheflix or perhaps even Netflix. These services all have a good selection of other Hou films available as well. But if you can possibly get to the corner of Fairfax and Beverly this week, I highly recommend seeing Three Times in a theatrical setting. This is a movie that is not going to do anything for audiences who define cinematic excitement primarily by summer blockbusters like Mission: Impossible 3. But to surrender to the tactile, emotional and observational pleasures to be had by stepping into the vivid, hushed and cluttered scenes framed by Hou and his brilliantly sensitive cinematographer, Pin Bing Lee, is to experience a kind of excitement that is far removed from a THX Dolby Stereo thrill ride—it is the thrill of feeling the hairs on the back of your neck stand up at the sight of two hands in the moment when they first touch and their fingers tentatively intertwine; the twinge of heartache over a silent, unrequited love; or the dulled charge of erotic fixations and confusion experienced by two lovers lost in and gliding through the chatter and insistent, ambient noise of a modern city. It is the thrill, in other words, of being in the hands of a master director, one who knows that some of life’s (and cinema’s) most moving dramas can be charted among the slightest of seismic shifts in mood, in sound, in the positioning of two beautiful actors as they look into each other’s eyes, or as they look away at a crucial moment, the angle of one glance deflecting off of another, another connection missed.
Three Times is structured in three segments—three love stories set in three different eras, each evoking hazy melancholy filtered through pop culture, political oppression reduced down to an abstract reflection at a fundamental human level, and the ways in which communication is thwarted, through the technology that is meant to enhance it, or through the sociological patterns that set people apart and challenge them to span that gap in order to make sense of their own feelings. Hou’s conceit, that the lovers in each segment are played by the same actors—Shu Qi (So Close, The Transporter, Millennium Mambo) and Chang Chen (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2046)—is a transporting one, allowing us to luxuriate in their beauty as mere movie presences and to compare their behavior and responses from one segment to the next as a way of charting our own responses to their characters. The segments are perhaps most simply and resonantly experienced, however, as tales that reflect the many ways in which people experience falling and being in love, and also that slowed-down sensation of perception that often signals when the hook has been set. Each story is set in a different period in Taiwanese history, and each is tonally and stylistically quite different from the next. However, each is still imbued with Hou’s probing long takes, the heightened sense that each edit, each shift in perspective, means something, even if we can’t articulate what while we’re experiencing it, and an alarming sensory sensitivity to the details and pleasures and even slight claustrophobia of the places where the stories unfold.
The first, “A Time of Love,” is set largely in a billiard parlor in 1966-- the jukebox plays “Smoke gets In Your Eyes” more than once, and that is partly a joke, but it also lays the emotional foundation, grounded in the very potent American pop culture seeping into Taiwanese culture at the time, for the understated personal drama that will follow. Shu Qi is a woman who works in the parlor and catches the eye of a conscripted soldier, played by Chang Chen, on the night before he is to report for service. When he returns on a brief pass, he discovers that she has moved on to another parlor in another town and decides to spend the rest of his time before returning to his military assignment tracking her down. Hou’s delicate framing inside the parlor, and the sounds of the balls clacking together and flying apart on the tables (often heard, but not seen), prepare within us a hyperawareness of environmental textures that is then reflected in the soldier’s open gaze as he travels the countryside, drinking in his freedom in search of this woman whom he barely knows, registering every element of his surroundings, taking not a whit nor a whiff of it for granted. The sequence in which we follow the soldier through the various villages is extraordinary in the way Hou’s lush compositions are particularly tactile without seeming overly decorative, obviously or oppressively engineered for effect. There is something of the sense of connection to the concept of place, to the importance of specificity toward place and time, at work that reminds me of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady, even though realizing a haunted, fevered, erotically driven piece of folklore is hardly Hou’s aim here. Instead, it is the soldier’s newfound desire that propels him, and it also propels the way that Hou allows us to experience the world—not through the soldier’s eyes, exactly, but certainly informed by his kind of quietly soaring perceptions. When the two finally do meet again, in another parlor, in a steam-filled noodle shop, and then finally, exquisitely, at a quiet bus station, there is a sweetness to the unarticulated joy in their eyes upon seeing each other again and spending time together that is a marvel to behold.
“A Time for Freedom” takes place in 1922, during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan. Perhaps the most unfulfilling of the three segments (by design, certainly, as much as through its lingering emotional residue), Hou revisits the tone and texture of Flowers of Shanghai, only in miniature. Shu is, in this time, a courtesan to a figure of local importance who strikes up a friendship with a man (Chang) who is active is the Taiwanese resistance to the occupation. As her feelings for the man begin to become much stronger, she begins to realize that those feelings of love for him are inextricably bound to a yearning she suspects, as do we, will never be satisfied—the freedom to live life, as this man does, according to one’s beliefs, rather than as a kept woman in a lovely cage. Hou not only reaches back in time for the fundamental elements of his story here, but he also mounts the segments as a true silent film. Dialogue is rendered sparsely, with accompanying intertitles, and the only sound we hear is a piano, not playing accompaniment as one might have heard in a silent cinema at the time, but a concerto that aptly reflects and expands upon the emotional churning that this woman is struggling so hard to suppress. If the first segment was Chang’s to occupy and inform and breathe life into, then “A Time for Freedom” is Shu’s moment to shine, and she does so magnificently. Known to audiences, Taiwanese and American alike, mostly for her beauty and athletic ability, she is riveting in her stillness here, and each glance, toward the man she’ll never have, toward the wedding party of another courtesan who is about to embark on the kind of life she so desperately wants for herself, carries with it surprising impact. Hou places her at the center of a startling amount of lovely clutter in the majority of scenes here, and it’s thrilling to witness the magnetic calm that surrounds and radiates from her at the center of the frame, even if the slightly claustrophobic surroundings aren’t exactly frenetic themselves. Shu’s quiet, piercing sadness is as tender and eloquent as the best film acting can be, in ironic counterpoint to her character’s inability to break through the shield of serious purpose surrounding her intended, or her own natural tendency toward stoicism and denial. And Hou’s choice to connect this silence of desire to the formal silence of a cinema of the past, of the time of his story, is intensely moving. When, in the last shot, he breaks form and allows synch sound during a shot where only the subtle crinkling of paper can be heard, it’s the soundtrack of our senses being heightened, of being unknowingly prepared for the film’s most startling shock cut, one that will propel us over nearly a century in 1/24th of a second, from imposed quiet to inescapable cacophony.
“A Time for Youth” is the film’s final segment, set in modern Taipei and following, as the director did in Millennium Mambo, the meandering patterns, connections and missed connections among a trio of lovers: a man (Chang) who works at a photo shop, a bisexual woman with epilepsy who becomes increasingly fixated on her relationship with him, to the detriment of her relationship with her obsessive, possibly suicidal lover (Su-jen Liao). For the first time, Hou’s lovers are allowed movement, they are allowed physical connections, and they have sex. But, like those billiard balls in 1966 clacking against each other and glancing off in random directions, these people spend the time they have together still reaching, groping for some meaning to the connections they do make with each others. But just as many of those connections are missed: Hou reveals, in haunting close-ups, how often the devices these young people use to communicate with each other (cell phones, e-mails, cameras, even the equipment used by Shu’s character to perform in her rock band) are subtly insufficient at allowing true communication to take place. Hou’s rendering of this theme is not condescending or of a pooh-pooh nature, as it might be in the hands of some other director who might seize upon the opportunity to make some grand statement about the closed-off quality of society as a whole. Fortunately, Hou is not working in a broad societal equation here, and he hasn’t a Chayefskian bone in his body. His vision is focused on the specifics of these quite unfocused, unspecific, unmoored people. And yet the revelation of this observation about technology is how it serves to illuminate, in retrospect, the same theme of thwarted communication which threads through the previous two segments, even though the technology which affords him the means to approach the idea in “Youth” can obviously not be present in the previous two times. This final segment is probably the one that will leave audiences most “unsatisfied,” as it reaches no obvious narrative or thematic conclusions about characters that might seem at times too self-centered and unaware to be much concerned about. But it seems safe to assume that the very uncertainty the audience feels might also be the point as we’re left with a vision of these two lovers, played so seductively by these two beautiful actors, speeding aimlessly around the city on a motorcycle, going nowhere fast and not much minding.
As the curtain comes down (if you’re lucky enough to see it in a place where such things still happen), we’re left with the speeding motorcycle and the blank looks of those riders and the ennui in their eyes, and with the noise of Taipei ringing in our ears. But it’s easy to recall that Three Times itself, though, is at its center quiet, heedful of its own rhythms and those of Shu Qi and Chang Chen. It is a beautiful, lived-in, expressively constructed and visually passionate film, one that really should be seen in a theater, but which will be seductive and enthralling and inviting even on DVD.
A final word: Speaking as a heterosexual male, it seems to me, based solely on her work with Hou Hsiao-hsien in Millennium Mambo and the “A Time for Youth” segment of Three Times, that Shu Qi, this seductive, talented actress-- a huge star in Asia but barely known here-- has done more for the art and the profoundly erotic possibilities of smoking in movies than anyone since Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not. Perhaps Chang Chen has the same effect on women and gay men-- I don’t know. I should emphasize that I’m a nonsmoker, and I have a general distaste for the way tobacco smells, even coming off of a person after the cigarette has been smoked. That said, I’m usually indifferent to seeing cigarettes and smoking portrayed in films (though I could never get worked up about banning smoking in films or altering older or classic films to excise evidence of it for fear of unduly influencing our youth).
But having seen Millennium Mambo, I had a sneaking suspicion the third segment of Three Times was going to be a real Shu Qi nicotine fest, and I was not wrong. And I was also not sad about it. I’m sure I’m either being extremely obvious here or opening myself up to a boatload of Freudian analysis/ridicule, but I’ve always been susceptible to the sensual qualities of beautiful women smoking, particularly in the movies. It’s a safe way, I suppose, of experiencing the erotic enhancement of a woman’s allure that smoking often provides without having to also experience the unpleasant olfactory realities and health hazards that come along with the activity.
Specifically, there is a scene in “A Time for Youth,” a post-coital moment in which the actress holds a fluorescent light up to a wall covered with her lover’s photographs and smokes, basking in the residual pleasure of their encounter, while looking at the photos. Eventually he comes up behind her and initiates another session of lovemaking, and she drapes her lithe body over his, both of them lit by the harsh blue-white light and surrounded by the lingering cloud of cigarette smoke. This one scene is all the proof anyone would ever need of that true eroticism in films is often attained without graphic or pornographic depictions of sex-- in fact, those elements may actually be detrimental to the success, as erotica, of scenes that look at sex through the prism of the late-night Cinemax aesthetic. And central to the erotic power of the scene in Hou’s movie, in my book anyway, is Shu Qi, subtly undulating in a private moment and smoking like a very sexy chimney. There is no question that she is one of the great smoking beauties in the history of cinema.