is a movie about love. And that's probably about all you need to know about it.
But for the ever-curious, Three Times
is written and directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien
of Taiwan, the most highly decorated directors you've never heard about and is comprised of three vignettes set in three different time periods--1966, 1911, and 2005.
The two main characters--lovers, more or less, in each vignette--are played by the same actors, each one delivering three luminescent performances and that's about all the three stories share in common with each other.
In the first, set in 1966, Chang Chen
plays a young man, Chen, called up to military service. During his leave, he hangs around a pool hall and flirts with the attendant there, Haruko (Shi-Zheng Chen
). But when Haruko is replaced by May (Shu Qi
), Chen's affections are likewise replaced.
It is the most romantic of the three stories, appropriately named "A Time for Love", and yet it is by no means over-sentmentalized. These are no destined lovers. But just it might happen in real life, they stumble upon each other at precisely the right place and time.
When Chen asks what happened to Haruko, he is told she has moved to a different city. And that is the end of it. He and May play some pool, a connection is made, and he tells her he'll write to her.
But later, when Chen returns to find May has also left, he follows her, first to one city and when he finds she is no longer there either, then to another. They share a few hours together before he has to catch a bus to report back to base early the next morning.
In the second story, entitled "A Time for Freedom" and set in 1911, Shu Qi plays Ah Mei, a prostitute in a brothel frequented by Mr. Chang (Chang Chen). Mr. Chang is an influential man working for independence from Japan. He is generous and kind, financially assisting another prostitute and friend of Ah Mei to leave the brothel behind for a concubinage to a powerful man when she cannot afford it.
Ah Mei and Mr. Chang share a deep, unspoken connection, but is it love? She longs for freedom from the brothel and thinks he is the way out. He is pleasant enough, but we think that no matter how noble he otherwise appears, he might just be looking for the same thing every man is when he enters a brothel. When she finally confronts him about whether or not they have a future together, he doesn't respond and we suspect that it might be because he's never considered it before.
In the final vignette, "A Time for Youth" which is set in 2005, Shu Qi plays Jing, a listless pop singer who lives with her female lover. She meets Zhen (Chang Chen), a photographer, and the two begin an affair.
Although "A Time for Freedom" was about the relationship between a prostitute and her client, "A Time for Youth" is by far the most physical of the three. Whereas "A Time for Freedom" occurs in between acts of passion--beginning as they dress almost ritualistically and fading out as outer garments are removed--"A Time for Youth" overflows with youthful, passionate sexual energy.
"A Time for Freedom" affects an intentional, almost methodical air, going so far as to mimic old silent films with their dialogue plaques and precise mannerisms. But "A Time for Youth" is messy and chaotic, lovers and ex-lovers and sort-of-lovers stumbling on and off stage, on and off queue, all at the same time.
Eventually Zhen and Jing are found out by Jing's spurned lover. Jing is notified via voice mail and rides off with Zhen on his motercycle. And that is the end, such that it is.
The three stories are completely self-contained, and yet what are we to glean from their juxtaposition? Certain motifs begin to emerge. All three involve letter-writing of some sort. In each one Shu Qi's character provides some sort of service for Chang Chen's. Tea is served to one character or the other at key moments.
But ultimately, even the best attempts to bind this movie together in a coherent, linear way begin to unravel. That the most innocent, straightforward love story, "A Time for Love", occurs when the writer/director would have been the age of his protagonists can't be a mistake. Perhaps we're being told that love in the 1910s was too much of a financial transaction and love today is too jaded for the director; but one's first love will be remembered sweetly and intimately with The Platters' "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" playing on the soundtrack. But then again, that seems too simplistic, too garishly blunt for a film of this beauty and mystery. It seems almost more plausible that this is merely a coincidence.
Perhaps in seeing these characters--and the supporting cast as well--weave in and out of time and place, we are to reflect on the sameness, the universality of love while at the same time, remarking at its inexhaustibly diverse manifestations. But of course, this is hardly profound; what is profound is the actual experience which Hou Hsiao-hsien renders in breathtaking deftness and elegance.
In the end,Three Times
is less about what it's about than how it's about what it's about. That is, the vignettes, separately and together, paint a picture rather than telling a story. They reflect upon the genuine, universal experience of love. That it happens to these two characters almost seems beside the point.Three Times
is a gorgeous movie, as any movie about love should be. It menders and takes its time just as love always does. Even in its most optimistic vignette where we know the couple ends up together because the opening shot shows them playing pool together in a scene that must to occur after everything else, there is no promise of happily ever after. Only the joy of the present and the hope in the future.
But if I were to give it the highest praise I could, I would tell you that Three Times
, unfathomable as it is, reminded me of every love and almost-love and sort-of-love I've ever had. Notice I didn't say that it made me remember them. There's a difference, and it's the same difference between Three Times
and every other movie about love out there.