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THREE TIMES (Zui hao de shi guang) (director/writer: Hou Hsiao-hsien; screenwriter: T’ien-wen Chu; cinematographer: Pin Bing Lee; editor: Ching-Song Liao; cast: Shu Qi (May, Ah Mei and Jing), Chang Chen (Chen, Mr. Chang and Zhen); Runtime: 139; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Hus-fu Chang/Wen-Ying Huang/Ching-Song Liao; IFC Films; 2005-Taiwan-in Mandarin and Taiwanese with English subtitles)
“An emotionally understated giant of a love story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien (“Goodbye South Goodbye”/”Millennium Mambo”) blends together in a delicate and intricate way three love stories set in Taiwan in different eras–a 1966 pool hall in the sticks in Kaohsiung, a 1911 brothel in Dadaocheng and a modern 2005 setting in bustling Taipei. Each of these beautiful delicately told romantic vignettes reflects a struggle between lovers and the ongoing history of the time. The film stars Shu Qi and Chang Chen in all three episodes as the lovers. In its sensual take on falling love, it creates an emotionally understated giant of a love story. It’s co-written by Hou and Chu Tien-wen. Hou’s longtime cinematographer Pin Bing Lee provides the stunningly rapturous shots. The stories are not directly connected except in an indirect way they show that Hou believes connecting in love is a matter of chance and being at the right time and place is more important than anything else. The age one lives in gives one a sense of their freedom and the possibilities to explore their desires. All the romantic tensions encountered in the three episodes reflect on a personal lack of communication and on the ever-changing international situation.

The first episode is entitled A Time for Love. It has the innocent newly drafted soldier Chen play a game of pool with the pretty new pool hall hostess May before his civilian life is halted. After the game, without expressing in words his love for her, only asking permission to write her, he reports for his army duty. He writes her a warm letter three months later, and much later on while on military leave spends the whole time trying to track down the woman who captured his heart but who has moved around to different cities. They finally connect just as he must return to his base the next morning, and in the rain end up holding hands as he waits for the bus. There are strains of American pop songs such as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “Rain and Tears” playing in the background.

The second episode is entitled A Time for Freedom. A beautiful courtesan named Ah Mei, of marriage age, has fallen in love with Mr. Chang. He’s a married diplomat and dreamy-eyed political activist working to liberate Taiwan from the Japanese occupation of the last 17 years. There’s great unexpressed feelings for each other but he remains her steady client, evidently not free enough to make her his concubine. He instead keeps her informed about the hot developments in the political arena. It seemingly reflects Hou’s misgivings about the repressive national and sexual politics of the times.

The third episode is entitled A Time for Youth. The modern-day setting has the trappings of the most freedom, but the lovers are the sickly epileptic pop singer Jing and hip photographer Zhen. Jing avoids her disgruntled female lover to spend more time with Zhen. They are caught up in living noisy and busy lives that keep them at a disconnect despite all the modern conveniences of being connected with such things as the cell phone and Internet. The young couple make love without being intimate, regularly hit the clubs at night to party hard, and take motorcycle rides around town to pass the time and forget about their empty lives. We also learn that mainland China has threatened Taiwan with war unless they become part of the mainland.

As far as I’m concerned, I enjoyed the first episode best. It was the kind of romantic story that overwhelms because of its simplicity, emotional resonance and subtlety. But taken as a whole, this magnificently lush work imparts the unified vision of a very perceptive and feeling filmmaker–one of the modern world’s best.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”