At the risk of offending the director and countless film snobs I would hesitate to even call this a film. I would call it a poem with moving pictures. I would even postulate that most viewers will regard this as the cinematic equivalent of reading from the phonebook, and that only a small fraction will be able to watch it all the way to the end. In short "Three Times" is a difficult film to approach.
In some ways it reminds me of "2001: A Space Odyssey". In that film Kubrick illustrated a possible future for us, by subjecting us to everyday events, where ordinary people talk about ordinary things, but he plays them out against a fantastic backdrop. Most of the dialogue and the action in the film is completely irrelevant, because the important thing is the frame, not the image inside it.
"Three Times" works the same way. Most scenes have very little actual content, almost no dialogue and the characters are engaged in completely mundane everyday actions. There's no subtext, no hidden meaning. When there's a shot of a man riding a bike that's really all it means. It's just a man on a bike, nothing more.
The film is comprised of three separate stories, each running about 45 minutes. They are vastly different in style, setting and mood, and they succeed in various degrees. Because of this they deserve to be evaluated individually before anything else.
First there's the 1966 sequence, which takes place mostly in a couple of poolhalls. A man meets a girl who works at one of these places. He likes her, but he's going away soon, returning to military service. In spite of this he courts her, in a manner of speaking, and promises to write to her while he's away. Later, when he returns he finds that she no longer works in the same poolhall, and then he must track her down.
Much of the story is played out in front of a static camera showing pretty much the same shot of the same poolroom. Only the view of the street outside indicates that time is passing. A number of classic love songs - including "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" - grace the soundtrack, and there's very little dialogue. The piece is comprised of the kind of non-events life is full of: A man riding a bicycle, a woman sweeping or two people eating a meal. Truthfully there's not a whole lot lot going on.
Slowly, VERY slowly, director Hou Hsiao-hsie builds up his utterly simply, but quite sweet love story, and even though this piece is a little boring to watch, it's not entirely unsuccessful. Both Shu Qi and Chen Chang are charming and the way they slowly edge towards each other might just end up catching your fancy, it caught mine anyway. Still, one has to wonder why Hou Hsiao-hsien thought the story warranted 45 minutes of screentime, when the same story could have been told simply with a handful of still photographs, probably to much greater effect.
The second part of the film is definitely the weak link.
The story takes place in 1911, and revolves around a courtesan and her hopeless love for a man, primed to join the Chinese revolution. That's what the press kit says anyway.
Even though this is the most dialogue heavy of the three parts Hou Hsiao-hsien has chosen to substitute the words with title cards as if this were a silent movie. The soundtrack consists of plinky plunky music, some awful singing and nothing else. Literally NOTHING else.
Watching this part of the film was an excruciating experience. It's absolutely dreadful. The lack of audible dialogue, despite the fact the characters talks as much as they do, is very off-putting. I felt the style created a distance to the story, as if I was constantly missing an essential part of the puzzle.
Of course it's a problem that the setting and the theme of this piece is hard to relate to in this day and age. The courtesan and the man can't just jump into each other's arms, take off their clothes and do the dirty right there on the table among the delicate porcelain cups. They must behave with dignity, and they can't show emotions, so you really really have to pay attention to notice any kind of attraction between the main characters.
Visually this piece is as beautiful as the two other parts of the film. Red and brown colors dominate the rich color palette, but it doesn't matter how beautiful the images are if the story is uninteresting and distant.
The third and final part is by far the best, and almost saves the film. I must have looked at the watch every two minutes during the first two parts, but I didn't look once during part three.
The piece takes place in 2005 and follows a woman, Jing (Shu Qi), who suffers from a number of illnesses because she was born too early. She lives with her lover, another young woman, but she's being pursued by a photographer, a man, whom she ends up in bed with. Jing, unable to commit to either of these two is torn and doesn't seem very happy.
Finally the two central actors get a chance to act out their character's passions. They make out, they kiss, they touch. No matter how well a cerebral love story is written it can't compete with the raw emotions on the display when two people are locked in a heated embrace.
Shu Qi looks striking throughout the film. Not model beautiful, but vulnerable and naked (emotionally that is), a mere shadow of the filmstar we know and love, but all the more fetching because of it. She often looks away from the camera, she often hides her face, her whole appearance is a tale of unhappiness. It's a sad, but beautiful sight, if that makes any sense.
The cinematography is also very beautiful in this segment. The color palette is cold and modern - cool green and blue hues, lots of white and neon lighting - which is actually quite appealing. The soundtrack is comprised of very loud techno music, the sounds of the city and - as is the case with the first segment - the sound of silence.
Again, there's very little dialogue and very little content in this story, but there's a lot more drama and a better sense of a conflict. Perhaps it's because the whole idea of trying to find a soulmate in the middle of a big noisy modern city, a quest that often seem like a lost cause, is especially fascinating. Also by its very nature this segment feels more immediate and therefore more relevant than the two other parts.
THE FILM AS A WHOLE
In screenwriting there's an expression called "get in late, get out early". This simply means that you should open a scene at the absolute latest opportunity, to make the most of the allotted screentime, and in the same manner you should end the scene as quickly as possible. If this approach had been applied to "Three Times" it would have been 10 minutes long. Simply put, the film doesn't obey the rules of a conventional narrative structure, and that makes it hard to compare to films that do.
That's because "Three Times" is a work of art. And herein lies the problem. I've always hated the idea that art is valid, simply because it's art. If art is the expression of ideas, emotions and stories, through another medium, in an effort to understand life or human behaviour, it should be relevant and approachable to common people (among which I include myself). But if the art means nothing to those who view it, then it looses its relevance, and its place in the world. This leads us back to "Three Times" and Hou Hsiao-hsien.
The film opens with a scene, several minutes long, where the two leads play pool. That's it. Nothing else happens, they just play pool. They hardly look at each other, they don't speak, they just play pool. I can just imagine film-snobs everywhere trying to analyze a scene like that to death, but the truth is, it's not about anything. And this is not the only time in the film we're treated to such a scene.
Why has Hou Hsiao-hsien chosen this style? Why does he insist on keeping the audience at arm's length? Is it simply his attempt to counter the way many modern movies are made? These days directors drench their films in visual gimmicks and overcomplicated plots. There's an emphasis on action over content and meaning, which means that the action becomes the content, which then loses its meaning. I think Hou Hsiao-hsien is trying to purge the fake and the unreal from his film, by using a style that strips all accessories and excesses from every scene, but what's left is a very odd thing indeed. Ironically, because the scenes are so "real", they feel empty and almost fake. Even real life isn't this cold or apathetic.
In "Three Times" every look, emotion and drama is understated. When the style fails it smothers everything it touches, but when it works something strange happens. Suddenly a little thing can have the most profound effect. A shot of two hands moving towards each other can send shock waves through the viewer. I find the idea - that you can make something so simple important by focusing on it absolutely and creating a void around it - quite tantalizing, but while the idea is appealing the execution left me wanting. I did find the third part of the story very fascinating, but more often than not the film doesn't work.
Sometimes less really is more. In this case less is just less.
This is a love story without much love, a historical drama without any sense of history, and frankly the link between the three parts is tenuous at best.
If you can manage to switch off your mind and simply go with the flow, like a piece of driftwood banging insistently against rocks at a shore, you might find the experience of watching "Three Times" almost cathartic. However, be warned: If you come to this story with the wrong expectations, in the wrong mood or if you let yourself get distracted by something, you'll find it about as interesting as watching paint dry - in slow motion.
"Three Times" ends up as a fascinating, but ultimately deeply frustrating piece of work. Which is why it's almost impossible to recommend.