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July 5-11, 2006

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'Three Times'

Taipei Personalities: Shu Qi and Chang Chen keep meeting in 'Three Times.'

Period Pieces

Not every movie by a master is a masterpiece, but Hou Hsiao-hsien's 'Three Times' hits the mark

By Richard von Busack

DESPITE the trouble the world has in getting to see his renowned films, Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times is simple to understand. The three-art romance is set in 1966, 1911 and 2005 and is played by the same pair of actors. May, from 1966, is a bar girl leading on a soldier who loves her. Ah Mei is a 1911 prostitute who waits in a bordello for a man's rescue, as the older women leave, and the younger girls arrive. In our era, Jing is a part-time singer with a yen sign tattooed on her throat to let everyone know she is willing to be bought. In the first episode, "A Time for Love," Hou works Wong Kar-wai's terrain—waterfront romance, sonically backlit with sentimental Western songs (the Platters' "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," and Aphrodite's Child's "Rain and Tears"). My feeling of being left cold by Wong's repetition and coyness is completely justified by what I saw here. What Hou achieves, Wong merely attempts in his romances of interior decoration.

In the first of three roles, the beautiful Shu Qi plays May, a lean, lightly freckled young girl in skin-tight silks. As she hangs out, she reads, files and forgets the correspondence from Chen (Chang Chen), who is doing his military service. At the instant of their unexpected reunion, May plays out a number of reactions—bemusement, amusement and a little shame. It all melts into deeper feeling. The close-up of their entwined hands disrupts the viewer's heart as keenly as anything this side of silent cinema.

When actually trying to re-create silent movies, Hou is more at a loss. In the 1911 sequence, he uses title cards to provide the sense of silent film, though the segment is in color, and music and ambient noise fill the soundtrack. The episode, called "A Time for Freedom," concerns a patriotic Mandarin scholar (Chang Chen again, as imperturbable here as he was virile in the first episode). He cannot make a respectable concubine out of the prostitute he loves, for moral and political reasons. The Wuchang rebellion breaks out off-screen. With it comes one of Taiwan's futile efforts to free itself from occupation by Japan. Despite the implicit passions, personal and political, this segment is still like watching orchids grow.

"A Time for Youth" is the culmination of Hou's themes. Now the correspondence that links the two lovers is no longer elegant love letters but text messages that say "Can't sleep. Miss you." And Shu Qi transforms herself again, this time into the scruffy Jing, an epileptic and a bisexual. She is unable to resolve her dependence on men with her defiance of them. Although she is duplicitous and opaque, she opens herself up on a nightclub stage. Jing sways to a dreamy dirge, a nightlife sequence as erotic and dismaying as anything in David Lynch. In Three Times, Hou returns to the image of lamps and braziers, the light perhaps symbolic of these three flash-point eras in Taiwan's embattled history. The film ends memorably with a 2005 motorcycle trip on a bridge across harbor waters—like the gulf that separated the soldier and the wayward girl, like the ocean that separated the Mandarin scholar and his lady friend. It's as if Hou's lovers are moving forward into the past.

Movie Times Three Times (Unrated; 135 min.), directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien, written by Chu Tien-Wen, photographed by Mark Lee Ping-Bin and starring Shu Qi and Chang Chen, opens July 7 at Camera 12 in San Jose.

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