In between A City of Sadness, one of the definitive films on Taiwan’s political past, and The Assassin, the wuxia film that just took home the Best Director prize at Cannes 2015, Hou Hsiao-Hsien came out with Three Times, a meditation on love and change featuring a radical cinematic conceit: the same two actors, Shu Qi and Chang Chen, play the main characters across three narrative segments set at three different points in history. This flight of fancy seems out of place in a film otherwise grounded in mundane environments, but under Hou’s sure hand, this bold impossibility grows into a key aspect of Hou’s exploration of very real realities – for one, the way “love,” both as a word and as a social practice, has changed over the years; for another, the way Taiwan has shifted as a cultural and political entity throughout the past century. I will propose some thoughts on the specific contributions of this unique casting job at the end of this review – for now, just know that Hou tells of love’s changing face through narrative and of Taiwan’s through allegory. The resulting experience, though burdened by poor pacing in its middle section, coheres around Hou’s very particular vision of what change means for both individual and country.
Unsurprisingly, the historical moments Hou selects are packed with significance; even as the characters’ interactions take center stage, the background noise of each era remains equally interesting. In order of the plot’s chronology, the first chapter of the film, titled “A Time for Love,” is set in 1966. The first image immediately transports us into a nostalgic space: a game of romance doubles as a game of pool, one where the clacking of balls shares the soundtrack with the Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” where guy and girl steal glances at each other when they think the other isn’t looking. You can practically taste the muggy wet air setting in after a summer rain, feel the electricity of new love on your skin. This exquisite opening sets the tone for the entire segment. “Love” in “A Time for Love” comprises the kind of innocent, youthful sweetness you think of when you hear of soldiers sending love letters to their girls back home; the chapter revolves around this exact story. Chang plays a serviceman named Chen who meets May (Shu), the young woman who runs the local pool room. After a single encounter, he decides to write to her while he’s on duty, and he does. But when he returns to the pool room, he finds that she has moved. What follows is a gently whimsical odyssey through various Taiwanese towns as Chen tries to locate his lost love.
“A Time for Love” aptly describes the optimistic view the entire chapter has on romantic interaction, but it could also, I think, convey the optimism of the era. 1966 marks the one-year anniversary of the withdrawal of U.S. economic and military aid from Taiwan after the island country had developed a sturdy financial base from which it could grow. Opportunity awaited, prospects looked promising; times were good. Cinematically, this sense of possibility is evoked through an aesthetic that seems to place the world at our fingertips: the story is itinerant, traveling from town to town, and the mise-en-scène is drawn to open spaces – the door to the recurring locale of the pool room is almost always ajar, providing access to the outdoors, and even indoor settings have back rooms, granting a generous sense of offscreen space. Narratively, the chapter has an encouraging outlook on the future for its could-be lovers; this hopefulness, when viewed against the historical context of the story, takes on the weight of allegory as well.
This auspicious mood quickly dissipates in “A Time for Freedom,” which dwells in a motif of entrapment, of freedom yearned but unattained. Here, Shu plays a courtesan contracted to work in an upscale brothel and whose only hope of leaving is to be married off to a suitor of her employer’s choice. This chapter takes place in 1911, and already, the social act of “love” looks different than in 1966. Rather than giving individuals the decision to pursue whom they please, the tradition of arranged marriages necessitates that romantic feelings be suppressed in favor of the agenda of higher-ups, whether they be a parent or a boss. Representing the politico-historical slant of Hou’s cinematic vision is Chang’s Mr. Chang, a regular patron of the courtesan’s workplace and an outspoken advocate for Taiwan to be freed from Japanese rule. He goes on at length about his dreams of freedom for his island home; meanwhile, it is evident that the courtesan is holding back her feelings for him. The cinematography mirrors both party’s sense of constraint in its depiction of cramped interiors overstuffed with furniture and paraphernalia.
This feeling of imprisonment is conveyed early on and sustained throughout “A Time for Freedom,” but in spite of – or perhaps because of – the chapter’s faithfulness to generating this particular ambiance, Hou’s storytelling in this segment dips into tedium. The characters talk a lot about stuff of no interest to us – extraneous plot details unfold with frustrating slowness, none of which advance our appreciation for the entrapment motif. Slowness is fine, but slowness with no clear intentionality signifies subpar directorial work. It could be argued that, in a move to identify us with the characters, “A Time for Freedom” aspires to trap us in a space of dead air and stasis, but I am more of the mind that Hou failed to properly execute what is otherwise an inspired concept for the chapter.
“A Time for Youth,” set in Taipei in 2005, feels completely different than the other two chapters – it dissolves the freedom-imprisonment dichotomy within the corrosive apathy of modern times, where new kinds of liberty and bondage are devised. Love and politics alike are subjected to a world that is presented as congested but lonely, full of social interaction but rife with narcissism. Shu’s character is Jing, an epileptic singer and Internet sensation; Chang’s is Zhen, a photographer who shows his affection for Jing by giving her the photos he takes of her. They have casual sex, emphasis on “casual” because that is how both of them treat relationships – despite the fact that both of them are dating other people, they remain available to each other as lovers. Already, the narcissistic tendencies of this “Me” culture is apparent – without giving thought to their emotional commitments to other people, both of the lead characters sleep around to satisfy their selfish impulses.
More symbolic is the film’s focus on photographs which, in stark contrast to the movie’s own use of the photographically-based medium of cinema for the purpose of humanistic art, are centered on the self. It’s true Zhen snaps pictures of Jing because he thinks she’s pretty, but his gesture of giving them to her doesn’t suggest any deeper care for her; when the two of them are riding a motorbike and she begins crying, his “Are you all right?” sounds almost monotone, as if the underlying emotion is mild exasperation rather than genuine concern. What’s more, it is Jing herself who requests the photos, making her acquiring them the de facto equivalent of her taking a selfie; an actual selfie occurs in another scene when, upon discovering that Jing had left a hospital notice about her epilepsy at his apartment, Zhen impishly bites the notice and turns his camera self-ward. These instances of creating self-centered media function as a metaphor for the ways social media has shaped modern relationships and popular culture in general – now more than ever, we are preoccupied with image over tangible reality, with being loved than taking the time and effort to love others. Appropriately, shallow-focus shots abound in this chapter, evoking the insularity and egocentricity of the characters’ worldviews.
Hou adds one more ingredient to the mix – advanced communication technologies (cell phones, emails, etc.) that engender a need for instant gratification. At one point, Jing’s girlfriend criticizes her for not calling her between the time Jing went home and fell asleep, a span of no more than a few hours (granted, this perceived neglect apparently belongs to a larger pattern of not responding to calls/texts, but still, the girlfriend’s threshold for tolerance is remarkably low, as is most of ours). One way “love” has changed is as a function of technology: a hundred years ago, a one-week gap between correspondences was acceptable, but today, taking more than a day to respond to a text may risk putting a strain on your relationship. Technology has shaped our sense of time, and with it, our sense of love.
Hou’s take on modernity, with its tech-mediated vanity and definition of love as non-committal, provides no room for nationalism. Unlike “A Time for Love,” which at least frames its characters against a recognizable historical moment, “A Time for Youth” drifts in a free-floating present. The year is 2005, but it might as well be 2055; the characters make no reference to current events, to anything that exists outside the bubble of their lives. The absence of any political or historical identity in this chapter is fascinating when seen in the context of the larger film. To varying degrees, the previous two chapters depict eras that valued duty to one’s country; even in “A Time for Love,” where military service seems to be an obstacle for the central romance, Chen never seems to begrudge the army for taking him away from his girl (though he is still sad, of course). In contrast, the only sense of duty present in “A Time for Youth” is toward individual whims and desires. As Hou portrays it, “nation” has become simply the place you live in, rather than something you’re loyal to.
Watching these three segments side-by-side is like reading a flipbook – through juxtaposition, we notice the differences between the chapters, between eras. Because “A Time for Love” runs first, the ending feels almost pessimistic, except the scope of the entire film denies such a simplistic good-or-bad, happy-or-sad reading. Time itself is indifferent, and the film has that kind of indifference to it, even as Hou clearly feels more warmly toward certain eras than others. With a nimble touch, he manages to cast a critical eye while simultaneously acknowledging that change is inevitable – it is a stance marked by both assertion and compromise. And yet one thing remains unchanged – the faces of Shu Qi and Chang Chen, who travel from 1966 to 1911 to 2005 alongside us, aging (or reverse-aging) little more than we do. For me, the key to figuring out why Hou chose to keep the two leads constant throughout the film is precisely to note that they are pretty much the only thing that remains constant. Dress, décor, architecture, social etiquette – everything else metamorphoses in the 90-some years spanned by Hou’s film. The recurrence of the actors, I think, characterizes Three Times as, on one level, a tribute to cinema. It slips a bit of cinematic fantasy into the quotidian spaces of the film to remind us that it was only through film that such a project – three stories traversing nearly a century – could be accomplished.
On another level, I think there’s something else to be said about how the one segment with a happy ending comes first – before we see Shu and Chang in their other roles, we see them as a romantic pair. Viewing them in this way creates in us the expectation that they will cheerfully get together in later chapters, and when they don’t, it comes as a genuine surprise. The construction of this association between the actors is, I believe, Hou’s way of symbolically evoking the need for intimacy, which prevails across eras even when a stable definition of “love” does not. For even as years fade into decades and centuries roll by like waves on an infinite sea, the desire to be close to someone remains, binding us, driving us forward. Hou sees this need for passionate togetherness in people. Perhaps he wishes the same for his country.