Hsiao-hsien Hou’s unevenly paced film Three Times (Zui hao de shi guang) traces three stories through time. The first one called A Time for Love is set in 1966 and revolves around Chen (Chang Chen), a young man who is about to join the army. He frequents a pool hall, meets a young hostess there, and sends her a letter of declaration. By then the girl has moved on and been replaced by May. played by an ethereal Shu Qi. May finds the letter, is intrigued by it, then meets the young man when he is on furlough. Then he writes her similar letters and even gets responses. When he comes back, May is gone and the we follow along as Chen hunts for her, but comes up short again and again. The eventual meeting of the two is nothing short of magical, and is all told told through excellent used of light and shadows and body language and gestures that do not need any words! The essence of love in its purest form is captured by Hou in these 45 or so minutes. Just the simple beauty of this segment catapults Three Times into the excellent category.
The second segment is titled A Time for Freedom and set in 1911. Chang Chen now plays the master and Shu Qi the concubine. The master is a writer and involved in discussions of freedom of the country. The dialog is replaced completely by intertitles and the segment is silent except for music. The concubine’s friend becomes pregnant and the master helps in buying her freedom so she can become 2nd wife to the father of the child. But his dealings with the concubine are of a mercenary kind, and her burning question as to what will become of her future, remain unanswered by the master. The segment deals with a physical and sensory kind of interaction between the two, with the master shown frequently washing his hands, sipping tea, and having his long hair combed by the concubine. Thus physical intimacy is implied and yet the emotional needs of the concubine are left unfulfilled. There is a stasis to this segment, and the use of intertitles instead of dialog breaks the flow of the narration. There is still enough visual beauty on the segment to make it worth watching.
This brings us to the final segment, A time of Youth and the setting is modern day Taipei with its cacophony of vehicles, urban sprawl and life in close quarters. Chang Chen now plays a photographer who gets involved with an epileptic rockstar, Shu Qi. Qi has a live in lesbian lover, Chen has a girlfriend, yet morals are loose and both are cheating on their partners. Chen is fascinated by Qi and photographs her at every turn. The lesbian lover sends texts and calls trying desperately to keep track of and woo back Qi, eventually threatening suicide! Qi is shown as partly distraught but ultimately unmoved as in the ending sequence she is riding pillion behind Chen through Taipei. The chaos and turbulence in the lives of these young people is mirrored in the claustrophobic reflective walls in Chen’s dark apartment, the close quarters at which Chen is photographing Qi at a performance, and the noise and crowds in the streets.
What is Hou telling us in Three Times? Perhaps that there was a time when love was mercenary and one sided, and then it was simple and pure and joyous, and in modern times it is now meaningless and fragmented and careless? At the visual level every segment is a perfect gem, the story is most engaging in the first segment – luminous, and the last segment is the most intriguing and enigmatic. The two main leads are exceptional and manage to convey by turns the simplicity, formality and distance coupled with intimacy, and the chaos and confusion, in the three different times. This is worth a watch for sure.