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Canon Entry - Three Times (2005)

Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.

Some films invite you to live in them. They are not about the narrative per se, though they are not necessarily lacking in that area, but rather about the mood they invoke in you. Three Times is one of the films that I want to live in, not because the worlds and times it portrays are particularly extraordinary but because the emotional experience between the two lovers (Shu Qi and Chang Chen) is so rich.

Consider the first story which takes place in 1966. Chang Chen basically plays phone tag without the phone to reunite with Shu Qi’s character whom he met at a pool hall once. Sped up a little and laden with more dialogue, it becomes a screwball comedy of errors. Instead, Hou Hsiao-Hsien places us in the characters’ backgrounds. We are the bystander patiently waiting our turn at the pool table as we watch May (Shu Qi) play a game of pool. His camera pans languidly barely catching up with May’s movements, which are not quick by any means. Slowing down the pace forces us to observe and settles our expectations for the rest of the film.

It helps immensely that both Shu Qi and Chang Chen are physically gorgeous and also quietly charismatic. Hou’s collaboration with Shu Qi in particular is perhaps one of the best artistic collaborations in modern cinema. He knows how to perfectly capture her unique beauty and presence so that we can empathize with her characters. Shu also never seems like she is acting, that she is simply inhabiting the world that Hou created for her, which is much harder than it looks.

While the love story between the two characters is clearly the central concern, Hou is just as focused on communication, which is odd since there is not much dialogue in Three Times. In fact, the most talkative film is the one set in 1911, which is almost completely silent, except for some key moments. Clearly channeling the silent film era and Ozu, Hou disorients us with a story about a young man and a courtesan he visits. Before we learn their circumstances, they seem like a loving married couple, with the way that Shu’s character patiently attends to Chang’s, putting on his jacket, carefully arranging his queue. He speaks of the literary salons and political rallies that he attends. She inquires after his family and mentions that one of the courtesans has good prospects to become a concubine of a wealthy family. The dialogue appears as the intertitles you would see in a silent film.

I think the dialogue is the least interesting thing about this segment, at least in terms of its content. The real story is in the looks and the body language of both actors. They clearly long for each other and are beyond comfortable in their presence. Yet their circumstances make it impossible for them to be with each other. An insistent and very modern piano score almost overwhelms this particular narrative, which seems to work at a right angle to the actual images that unfold on screen. In fact, the times that break away from the silent film format are musical, since music is so much more better at conveying pure emotion, which the two characters are clearly not good at doing.

I will admit that the third story, which takes place in the current day, 2005, lost me a little. In this narrative, Shu Qi’s character is in a relationship with another young woman, yet Chang Chen’s character is slowly drawing her away from her relationship. Her partner is acutely aware of Shu’s emotional distance, yet we never see them have an honest discussion of what is happening. One potentially major happens at a noisy nightclub, while the other is a note left on a computer screen. In an inverse of the first narrative, it is the more active person who plays phone tag with the drifter, who can barely muster up the energy to pretend that she is interested in confronting these issues. By itself, the film is listless in that way that many indie and foreign arthouse films from that period were listless.

Three Times was meant to be an omnibus film with each segment directed by a different director. That idea fell through when funding could not be raised, and Hou took the reins himself. It is his control and attention to detail that makes this third narrative work since it reflects on themes that Hou has been carefully evoking in the narratives that came before. For example, the (mostly) diegetic music opens up the emotional landscape of the characters. In the first narrative, they are mostly pop songs to evoke that time and place. In the second, it is the purest form of emotion. In the third, it is meaningless and almost nihilistic. The third also has that contemplative camera, except in that film we’re either lounging in the apartment with Shu, or we’re sipping a drink, bored, in the nightclub while observing the two women argue. This narrative could be either the most cynical or the most yearningly romantic one in the film because of its refusal to give us resolution.

I read a negative user review that accused this film of pretentiousness, lack of narrative and glacial pace. While I firmly believe that everyone is entitled to their own opinion about any piece of art, what this review betrayed was a clear frustration that it didn’t conform to this person’s view of what constitutes a “good” film, a view that he or she is entitled to. And despite Hou’s reputation, I don’t find him to be pretentious at all. I think he is one of our most empathetic directors in that he finds his characters’ emotional states and flaws the most fascinating part of his narrative. He does not telegraph these stories with broad strokes and irritating shaky cam close-ups. He is content to simply put us in the best place to observe and empathize with these characters through his filmmaking and draw our own conclusions.

Postscript:

The film bears more than a passing resemblance to In the Mood for Love and Moonlight. Barry Jenkins has been quite open about the influence of Wong Kar Wai on his work, but I haven’t heard him talk about Hou Hsiao-Hsien. I can easily imagine him having all of Hou’s work on DVD.

 

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