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With: Shu Qi, Chang Chen
Written by: Chu T'ien-wen, Hou Hsiao-hsien
Directed by: Hou Hsiao-hsien
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Mandarin, Taiwanese, with English subtitles
Running Time: 136
Date: 05/20/2005

Three Times (2006)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Third Time's the Charm

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

With the most "difficult" of world masters, it sometimes becomes necessary to choose their most "accessible" film in an effort to coax "amateurs" into seeing great works. In the case of Hou Hsiao-hsien, there is a certain size fan club that remains constant, no matter how difficult Hou's films are, or how difficult they are to see. If they are released, they do lousy business, but if they're not released, the fans raise a squawk.

Oddly, Hou's career seems to creep ever closer to that "accessible" film, and yet he never seems to sell out. It could be that I've seen enough of his films (seven at this writing) that I've begun to learn his filmmaking "language." Either way, I think the new Three Times is that "accessible" film, the one that newcomers can see and enjoy.

Millennium Mambo (2001) had a modern sensibility to it, a kind of youth-oriented ennui that should have caught on, but instead turned many viewers off. And Café Lumière (2003) was a tribute to Ozu, a much-beloved cinema master all around the world. But Three Times is even simpler, and it even has a beautiful, magnetic star in one of the lead roles.

Basically, the film is divided into three segments, set in 1966, 1911 and 2005. Two lovers, played by the same actors, Chang Chen and Shu Qi, meet during each time frame but find their relationship rocked by the social imbalances of each time. I'm not sure why Hou starts with the 1960s sequence, jumps back to 1911 and then forward again, other than it just makes more aesthetic sense to the emotional line of the film. (It moves from warm, to cold to indifferent.)

Laden with wistful pop songs, the 1966 story is perhaps the loveliest, where a soldier on leave falls for a girl, May (Shu Qi), in a pool hall. When he returns much later to find her, he spends his entire leave hunting for her, tracing her through a series of former addresses. When they finally join together, it's the sweetest moment in all of Hou's work.

The 1911 sequence, set when Taiwan was occupied by Japan, is shot like a silent film complete with intertitles for the dialogue, but with a rather off-putting musical score. The entire film is set indoors, where a courtesan (Shu Qi) must wait for her lover, a radical journalist, to return from his various business trips. Like Hou's Flowers of Shanghai, set during the same period, much is unspoken between the lovers, and the pining hope against hope is all that remains.

When 2005 explodes across the screen, it almost comes as a shock, with motorcycles, crowds, make-up, piercings, throbbing music, cell phones and e-mail (a stylistic crossover from Millennium Mambo). Strangely, all these modern attitudes result in even less direct communication than in the 1911 sequence. This time, Zhen (Shu Qi) is a singer with a laundry list of physical afflictions: epilepsy, fragile bones, a hole in her heart, etc. She has a jealous live-in lover, a woman named Micky, but she has a fling with Zhen (Chen).

Hou doesn't provide a neat conclusion, wrapping up and tying together these three segments. It may be easy to conclude that he prefers 1966, when the world was growing up but still vaguely innocent, but that's too simplistic. Love is messy, desperate, inconclusive and wonderful -- even for little moments -- in any time. And Hou has done it justice with this new masterpiece.

DVD Details: As of September, Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times is the best movie to be released theatrically in 2006. But there's a conundrum. IFC Films has released the official American DVD, and I already own the Chinese DVD (from First Distributors/Fabulous Collection). So I did a comparison between the two. The Chinese (which I found in San Francisco's Chinatown for about $17) DVD comes with lots of extras, including a trailer, an interview, cast and crew bios and a photo gallery. The IFC disc has no extras, whatsoever. Not even a trailer. (It does come with trailers for its other, non-related titles.) Moreover, the IFC disc is not 16:9 widescreen enhanced, while the Chinese disc is. But the IFC disc features a much warmer, softer picture; the image on the Chinese disc is cooler, but sharper. The subtitles on the American disc are slightly better as well, placed below the image in the black letterbox bar. So it's a puzzle. I can't decide which one I prefer. Certainly the IFC disc will be far more available to more viewers, and that's fine. So long as lots of people get to see it.

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