17 November 2005 | Chris Knipp
Only the first third really sings, but when Hou hits it, he flies to the moon...
Shown at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, October 2005.
Hou fans, a serious bunch, will be delighted with the chronological and sociological ambition of "Three Times"; for me it drifted gently downhill after "time" one, a wonderfully touching, minimalist love story about a soldier and a pool hall girl in 1966. The second "time" ("Dadaodeng: a Time for Freedom") is 1911, and to evoke the period Hou shoots the film as a silent with piano music and inter-titles and the subject of a brothel and buying courtesans as concubines -- complicated by a story of going off to fight for freedom -- resembles Hou's cumulatively richer full-length brothel saga, "Flowers of Shanghai," which is easier to follow. "Time" three is now, and Hou lays on the contemporaneity with a trowel: you've got tattoos and cell phones and text messaging and motorcycles and epilepsy and lesbian lovers and smog and nightclub singing... and it all ends chaotically... like contemporary life, I guess. Each period segment has a composedly different style but, number three, "2005: Taipei: A Time for Youth" seems the least uniquely Hou of the three. It takes off from Hou's "Millennium Mambo," but the material has been dealt with in more original fashion by Wong Kar Wai and Olivier Assayas and many others.
What justifies the three segments and makes them interact with each other is the use of the same two actors, the tough but tender Chang Chen and the "impossibly glamorous" Shu Qi as the man and woman for each period. Seeing how they are transformed each time conveys Hou's essential message that we are entirely formed by the period we live in. Everything in the film is ravishing to look at, but it's the shyness of the couple in "time" one ("1966, Kaosiung: A Time for Love") that stole my heart. The final scene, where the girl and boy just sip tea and look at each other and smile and nervously laugh and fall in love, seemed more authentic and present and fresh than probably anything else in the whole film festival at Lincoln Center this year. When Hou hits it, he flies to the moon.