An unexpectedly weaker effort from Hou —this is a well-intentioned experimental exercise in form, style and structure, but it comes off as uneven and unsatisfactory.
Dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien
2005 | Taiwan | Drama/Romance | 120 mins | 1.85:1 | Mandarin & Min Nan
NC16 (passed clean) for some sexuality and mature themes
Cast: Shu Qi, Chang Chen
Plot: Three stories set in three times, 1911, 1966 and 2005. Two actors play the two main characters in each story.
Awards: Nom. for Palme d’Or (Cannes); Won 3 Golden Horse Awards – Best Taiwanese Film, Best Taiwanese Filmmaker, Best Leading Actress. Nom. for 8 Golden Horse Awards – Best Feature Film, Best Director, Best Leading Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Makeup & Costume Design
US Distributor: IFC Films
Singapore Distributor: Cathay-Keris Films
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Unconventional/Experimental
Audience Type: General Arthouse
(Reviewed at the Hou Hsiao-Hsien retrospective – first published 25 May 2016)
In my opinion, Three Times is Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s weakest work, if you consider his filmography since The Boys from Fengkuei (1983).
Made in between Cafe Lumiere (2003) and Flight of the Red Balloon (2007), two films that saw him work in Japan and France exclusively, Three Times brings him back to Taiwan, and functions as if it is a sweeping reflection of Hou’s preoccupation with the three central themes of his career—nostalgia and memory, tradition and transaction, and youth alienation.
Starring Chang Chen and Shu Qi, both of whom appear in three separate, unrelated shorts that are set across a span of a century, Three Times is at best a well-intentioned experimental exercise in form, style and structure. At worst, it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be.
“Rain and Tears” used in the film was sung by Aphrodite’s Child and based on Pachelbel’s Canon.
In the first short ‘A Time of Love’, the strongest of the trio, a romance blossoms between the two characters set in a billiard house in Kaohsiung in 1966. Hou’s use of source music is exemplary here as he creates a mood marked by fleeting feelings of melancholy and longing.
In the second short ‘A Time for Freedom’ set in 1911 when Taiwan was still occupied by Japan, Hou relives the formal aesthetics of Flowers of Shanghai (1998), but fashions a silent film—with intertitles—out of it.
Themes of buying one’s freedom and the rigidity of gender conformance to traditionally upheld attitudes are in place as the film details the suffocating existence of women bound by contractual duties to serve. This is the weakest short of the trio.
Finally, the last short ‘A Time for Youth’, set in modern Taipei in 2005, is more or less a thematic extension of Millennium Mambo (2001), dealing with the complexities—and trivialities—of youth existences.
When seen as a whole, Three Times is unsatisfactory because it is uneven. But with the familiar faces of Chang Chen and Shu Qi, perhaps what may tide you through are their embodiments of the different characters, giving us performances that show their versatility.
If not, it is best to look at Three Times as a flawed artistic experiment by Hou, coming at a stage of his career when he could boldly push for stories to be told differently, without having any harm to his reputation.