After an unbroken string of masterpieces, starting with Beiqing chengshi (City of Sadness (1989) and ending with Hai shang hua (Flowers of Shanghai, 1998), Hou Hsiao-hsien entered a period of transition. Although present in many of his previous films as a sub-theme, he now started to focus his artistic vision on exploring the conditions and behaviour of young people in the contemporary urban world. To express this theme adequately, he seems to have felt the need for even more daring formal structures. Along with a still more minimalist approach as regards plot and explanation (and smaller casts of characters), he further developed his trademark long takes by reducing their narrative function while emphasising more than ever sheer duration and their portrayal of, and resemblance to, the messiness of ordinary life. By patient observation of such situations seemingly unfolding in real-time, some sort of poetry and insight would rise up from the observed material.
Qianxi manbo (Millennium Mambo, 2001) was oddly compelling but ultimately somewhat unsatisfactory, mostly due to the lack of underlying structure: repeated viewings, so instrumental in the full comprehension and enjoyment of Hou’s previous work, here yielded disappointingly little. Much lighter in tone and less dependent on long takes, Kôhî jikô (Café Lumière, 2003) was a charming piece of kleinkunst but lacked interesting characters and was even more superficial than its predecessor (and as an intended homage to Ozu it had a curiously narrow view of his artistic legacy, as if Ozu was only about small talk, meditative calm and an atmosphere of transience).
Zui hao de shi guang (Three Times, 2005), however, is a very rich and rewarding film and seems to represent a new plateau in Hou’s work, with his most refined blending yet of his unique form of “mysterious realism” with an impressionist evocation of subtle moods. On the whole, his style has crystallised into something one might call complex minimalism: a surface simplicity enriched by a hidden structural complexity.
Three Times consists of three separate stories, taking place in 1966, 1911 and 2005 respectively, that on the surface deal with love, freedom and youth. In a major instantiation of the film’s strategy of repetition (and timelessness), the protagonists of all three stories are played by the same actors, Shu Qi and Chang Chen (with other actors also turning up in several stories).
Although to demonstrate the richness of the film this article will touch briefly upon a number of subjects, it will chiefly explore the film’s main underlying theme of the repetitiveness of human life, by showing how its hidden structure is amplifying and enriching this theme. The article will also attempt to shed light on the utterly mysterious and chaotic (and severely underappreciated) third story of the film.
A Time for Love
Again and again, the balls of a pool table are placed in their starting position. A new game commences and, although the game itself has virtually limitless possibilities, the actual playing of it is executed with a repetitious pattern of movement and behaviour. This is an essentially ritualistic endeavour, as is the small talk of the players commenting on the course of the game. It is an unchanging, yet constantly changing world. Equally ephemeral is the contents of a small blackboard, which is regularly wiped clean to keep score, for a brief time, of a new game. Long hours can be spent at the pool table, while time seems blissfully to be standing still and one can pretend one will live forever.
The first scene of Three Times describes in loving detail such a “timeless” situation. Of course, the scene is important because the young man and woman playing together that evening are beginning to fall in love during this session. It is worth noting, however, that while the film’s two other stories are told linearly, this particular scene is lifted out of the first story’s chronological order, as if it has somehow escaped time to serve as an enabler of time-related subtext, of which repetition is an important part (furthermore, this pushed-forward scene serves as an emphasis of the film’s inherent “plotlessness” and as an idealised and compressed portrait of youth on Taiwan in 1966).
Early on, Hou constantly dwells on the everyday, repetitious routines of the small pool hall: making it ready for a new day, brushing the table, opening and closing the sliding doors and so on. On the whole, there is little narration to speak of and, yes, the love story is very sweet and the images are extraordinarily beautiful, swathed in a dreamy and serene atmosphere, but the full scope of the film can only be appreciated by becoming aware of the resonances created by its form and especially its repetitions. The two pop tunes, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “Rain and Tears”, are both played twice. We constantly see the characters being ferried over a body of water, presumably back and forth to the place where the pool hall lies. Shot structure can follow a repetitive pattern: when the woman leaves her job as a hostess at the pool hall and when the man later goes looking for her, we see both of them leaving on the ferry, and each time the initial shot is followed by a closer one. When in an early scene the man travels to the pool hall, the shot starts with the shadow of his cycle; later, during his search for the woman, one shot starts with the shadow of him walking down a street. In the last seconds of the story, their relationship is sealed by a shy holding of hands: the “banality” of this action not only lifts the story up to a universal level, but can also be seen as the ultimate repetition, of an action that all lovers through history will have made.
Sometimes the repetitions form chains. There are three pool halls, since, during his search, the man twice discovers that the woman has moved on to yet another hall. Thrice his travels are compressed visually by successive, similar-looking road signs announcing the places he is passing. The hostesses working at the first pool hall form another chain: in the film we meet both the woman’s predecessor and successor. The man declares his interest in the woman in a letter because he has been forced to go away on military service, but he has previously written a similar letter to her predecessor as well, by whom he seems to have been equally smitten.
Gradually taking in this seemingly ever-expanding connective tissue constitutes an important part of the enjoyment, and the above list is by no means exhausted. The scope of this segment is definitely broader than being a sweet love story with ravishing visuals.
A Time for Freedom
The second story takes place in 1911 exclusively within the quarters of a high-class courtesan who is having a relationship with a rich political activist. Like its visual and thematic precursor, Flowers of Shanghai, it is shot with near-fetishistic attention to body language, clothing and scenography, creating an utterly believable yet uncannily strange environment, so real that it seems as if preserved somewhere outside of time, ready to spring to life every time the film is watched, the characters having been granted eternal life in a cinematic Valhalla.
If the pool playing of the first story had an air of ritual, ritual seems the entire life of the courtesan, governed as she is by strict rules for behaviour, subservience, politeness and propriety (she is even denied a voice, since this story is shot as a silent film). To reflect the narrowness and timelessness of her existence, this story is also rife with repetition: Hou scrupulously shows, for example, how one particular oil lamp is lit and the “ritual” of the activist washing his hands and face each of the three times he arrives in her quarters, while she is attending upon him. This story as well features a chain of women, this time at various points in a courtesan’s life: a ten-year-old girl is taken in as a “trainee”, a young girl is escaping by marrying a client to become his concubine after getting pregnant by him, and the somewhat older protagonist, who seems to remain “imprisoned” because her lover does not want to marry her.
One particularly interesting repetition occurs that also reflects the story’s surface theme of freedom: during two scenes featuring the courtesan, we hear traditional Chinese music that appears to be non-diegetic (and definitely not produced by her). But, both times, the music continues without a break into that of the next scene, where it is revealed that, here, the music is actually performed by the courtesan herself – a brilliant and striking way of showing, both aurally and visually, how she is forced by tradition, social status and ritual into a role as a mere entertainer, pushed into the background and separated from her rich lover, who now sits at a table with his equals.
As if taking a cue from “Rain and Tears”, which concludes the first story, that story ends with rain and the second with tears. In a subtle yet profoundly moving epilogue, the courtesan receives a letter from her lover who, after the Wuchang Uprising (the first link in the long chain that was the Chinese Revolution), is leaving for Shanghai. With his energies now seemingly focussed on the possibility of social change on the Mainland, and since Taiwan would remain under Japanese rule until after World War II, he could now be lost to her forever. The story is wonderfully ambiguous about whether he loves her or not, but the courtesan seems to love him still, since she caresses the letter and then cries. Or are her actions caused by regret for her inability to participate in the outside world, only hearing about it through his conversation and letters, or caused by fear of losing him and thus her connection to it? The ambiguities abound, but ever-present repetition binds things together: this is the second time we see her cry and, during the story, her lover twice mentions having shed tears of his own. Furthermore, her indirect caress of him through the letter was earlier reflected in her gentle touching of a towel while he was washing.
A major recurring motif of this story is a corridor, shot in both directions, dazzlingly lit from outside, casting delicious and intricate patterns on its ornamented walls. While never losing his clear-eyed view of the social situation (especially stunning is the shot where the courtesan is seen observing Madame’s physical examination of the ten-year-old girl), this story may be Hou at his most beautiful (amazingly, the whole “film” is shot on HD digital video) and certainly his most tender: the wistful atmosphere, the lingering pace, the camera moving as tenderly as the courtesan’s hands during her ritual-like combing of her lover’s hair, with large parts of the story caressed by ethereal yet thoughtful piano accompaniment.
A Time for Youth
Connecting directly to the contemporary youth theme of Hou’s previous two films, the third story is about an emotionally troubled yet strangely apathetic female rock singer who starts a love affair with a photographer while still in a lesbian relationship with a jealous and clinging girl, causing the latter to commit suicide. This story is closing the circuit as regards motifs dealing with communication (the letters of the first two stories are here substituted by a bewildering array of mails, text messages and websites) and lighting (the electric ceiling lamp in the very first image of the film, the oil lamps of the second story and, here, the manually-operated neon light in the photographer’s apartment). Like the courtesan, the protagonist is a performer of music, but extreme restriction has turned into half-desperate aimlessness, and, even only 94 years apart, it is hard to imagine that they live on the same planet. Chronologically speaking, the film forms a graph of the increasing unpredictability of life on Earth: from the courtesan locked in her gilded cage, via the pool hall hostess who is free to travel but always ends up in a similar place, to the rock singer who seems to be afloat in a sea of total freedom (brilliantly expressed on the singer’s web site: “No past, no future, just a hungry present”).
Hou represents this state of freedom by a narrative near-chaos transmitted with a calm and almost casual-looking inscrutability that makes the story impossible to comprehend to any satisfactory degree in just one viewing. It is ironic, though, that while an initial impression might well have been that many of the scenes are presented in a chronologically rather random order, careful examination seems to establish that the story is actually told in a scrupulously linear way. And, as usual, Hou will regularly employ his almost perverse subtlety: in an early shot, the singer covers her left eye and regards her new lover with her right one. It is only later, however, that we learn that she is, among several ailments, almost blind in her right eye (the photographer reads this on her website, an ironic comment on the heightened state of information in 2005: you can check up on people on the Web after having slept with them). So the poetry (and mystery – why is she doing it?) of her almost blind look at her new lover is totally lost on us until a second viewing of the film. Or a third, fourth or many more viewings, because what initially looks like a bafflingly minimalist story filled with long takes of situations seemingly devoid of information is gradually transformed into an astoundingly complicated web of data, where we are asked to keep track of half-glimpsed persons, unexplained asides and possibly highly important mails and text messages.
Perhaps Hou’s most daringly subtle move is his depiction of the suicide – several experienced critics this author has talked to did not even notice it happen (myself included at the first viewing). We definitely see the girl write a note on her computer saying that she will commit suicide, but this could have remained a threat. An actual suicide, however, does happen, but entirely off-screen, even at the same time as the singer is present in the apartment, and even more without her apparently showing much of a reaction. The singer has returned after having sneaked away for a date with her lover. The girl has figured this out and that is the direct reason for her suicide. Unseen by us, she must have been waiting on the balcony ready to throw herself out, but first she beckons (she must have, we do not hear a sound) to the singer, who (we see) looks out on the balcony and must have seen her there, to read the note on the computer. While the singer reads the embittered farewell, we hear a (quite discreet) thud on the soundtrack – the girl has jumped. Miss this sound or fail to connect it with what can be inferred from the singer’s actions upon returning, and you will miss the culmination of the entire story. And the singer actually does get a reaction afterwards, but it is the reaction of someone confused and nearly numb, but devastating all the same.
The story ends with the photographer and the singer driving a motorcycle over a bridge with urban Taipei in the background. As a reflection of the unorderliness of modern life, this story seems to contain far less repetitions than the others (an intriguing chain, however, is constructed by the girl’s farewell note referring to the suicide of another person called Olika, who is totally unknown to us but could be a former lover of the singer). But it is fascinating that, of the three stories, this third one has been given, by far, the firmest sense of circularity. The first story, however, by lifting the pool-playing scene out of that story’s chronological order, started with the couple beginning to fall in love and ended with them establishing a relationship. In the second story, the action of an early scene where the courtesan performs music was repeated, very significantly as we have seen, near the end, but the circularity was disturbed by the epilogue. The third story, however, emphatically starts and ends with the same action, and the singer even looks upset both times (the first time by the suicide of the mysterious Olika?). The last we see of them is that they have joined a chain of other motorcyclists, but the overall impression is that they in reality lack freedom to a still greater degree than the courtesan of the directly preceding story, perhaps because they have lost themselves and even their capability for deep love, while the courtesan seems to have retained both her integrity and, possibly, her love for the activist.
Considerations of brevity allow this author to present merely a fraction of what ought to be known about this film. The unravelling of its dense, beautiful patterns is an integral part of experiencing it, and its complexity mirrors our information-saturated and impenetrable modern life, which art should reflect and of which Three Times is an outstanding example. It is an emotional film with an intellectual heart.