Hou Hsiao Hsien is often referred to as the Taiwanese counterpart to Wong Kar-wai. Both filmmakers work within the marginalised outskirts of the Chinese disapora and utilise time as a trope to explore memory and personal history, desire and place. However, Hou’s filmic meditations on temporality are arguably slower and less flamboyant than Wong’s; intoxicating, languidly paced and obsessively focused on seemingly banal details that are exquisitely framed in each shot. Hou’s most recent feature-length film set in Taiwan, Three Times (2005), entwines the slow burn of desire and the fragility of romantic connection with the passage of time.
I feel that every era has its own distinctive sense. These eras will never come again. Time keeps moving forward. One’s environment and one’s thoughts keep changing as well. They’ll never come again. It’s not that they’re good times, it’s because we’re recalling them that we call them good times.
Split into three narrative strands, Three Times captures the dynamics of a romantic relationship between Shu Qi and Chang Chen in three different periods. Individually titled, “A Time for Love”, “A Time for Freedom” and “A Time for Youth”, the vignettes are set in 1966, 1911 and 2005 respectively. Shu and Chang have different roles that reflect each period: a pool hall hostess and a soldier in 1966, a courtesan and a nobleman in 1911 and a singer and a photographer in 2005. Loosely tying together the individual narratives is the theme of yearning, which saturates every frame with unspoken desire. The chemistry between Shu and Chang is palpable, but the problematics of communication are repeated in each story and the timing of romance is always out of sync.
Although the details of each era are perfectly re-created, Three Times is less concerned with history in a larger sense than the personal impact of history on connection. The cinematography of frequent collaborator Mark Lee Ping-bin lingers on tiny fragments hidden within the mise en scène, gesturing towards the private details that set the backdrop to the characters’ interactions. Through Lee’s lens every shot is perfectly framed and composed. It could be suggested that Hou favours style over substance, but this mode of filmmaking, which meticulously records every object, complements the dreamy rhythm of the film’s central relationships.
Three Times may be considered an arduously slow cinematic experience and the long takes, close-ups of props and décor and silences may be too dull for some viewers. There are no narrative conclusions or grand statements, but a microcosm of longing that explores the shift in expressions of intimacy with the years.