Hou Hsiao-hsien’s extraordinary Three Times (2005) tells three love stories set in different historical periods, 1911, 1966 and 2005 – although, cleverly, it places the 1966 story first. Each part features the same actors, Shu Qi and Chang Chen.
What links these stories, beyond the comparison of different styles of love – innocent and asexual, thwarted and repressed, modern and alienated? The film rigorously explores what happens to the supposedly universal love relationship (this eternal quality cued by the subtly magical re-apparition of the same bodies of the performers across time) under particular material, social conditions.
Two such conditions are especially important and determining. First, the condition of how connected the lovers are (in terms of the degree or extent of physical contact; as well as by, for instance, forms of communication ranging from letter to SMS texting). Second, the condition of how mobile they are in their everyday lives (according to obligation or opportunity, and in strict relation to gender: in the first two stories the women don’t move while the men travel, whether “freely” or under constraint; while in the third story the woman is more incessantly mobile and fugitive than any other character, including her stay-at-home lesbian lover).
It is fascinating to approach Three Times from the angle of what it might have seemed to be, at the outset, as a project on paper. Would it have seemed so cinematic on the page? What would there have been to read, by way of characters and storylines? Here, in fact, we find a way to measure the prevailing aesthetic poverty of many national cinemas. In the Australian film industry context, for instance, far too much emphasis is placed on what can be conveyed within a script – leading to an obviousness about character psychology and narrative clarity that owes more to moribund conventions in conventional theatre or literature or television than to the “crest line” of world cinema represented by the likes of Hou, Jia Zhang-ke or Tsai Ming-liang.
Hou’s process comes from, and enjoys the fruits of, another cultural and artistic context entirely. The example of Three Times, and more generally the work of Hou or his like-minded contemporaries, shows that one can create exciting cinema from the simplest ingredients – if they are arranged rigorously.
Let us consider the first story, “The Time of Love”. How was it composed or prefigured as cinema on the page? First, there is a systematic withdrawal of any obvious signs of psychological or emotional states from the events as they are conceived, depicted and presented: it is up to the actors, and to Hou in guiding them, to subtly suggest the presence of deep emotion in the subtlest, unremarked-upon smiles, movements and gestures (such as the ubiquitous smoking of cigarettes, which has rarely been so expressive in cinema as here). As usual in Hou, the expression of emotion is itself placed under a massive constraint that is both an aesthetic parti pris and a reflection of historical, cultural and national conditions.
Second, the action in “The Time of Love” is constructed in terms of repetitions – or, to use a more supple term, musical-style refrains. Repeated scenes that are elaborated at length (such as those around the pool table) allow us to sense, each time they reappear, the slight or dramatic changes in emotional temperature or mood. The more obviously refrain-like moments, which are shorter and generally dialogue-less – such as the varied shots of characters entering or leaving the harbour by boat, or the road signs economically announcing travel through cities – allow Hou to speed up his tale in a stunningly elliptical, almost anti-realistic way, thus creating a counter-rhythm to the famous long-take minimalist description (of everyday life, gestures, etc) with which he is usually (and sometimes erroneously) associated, and to which he is unfussily assimilated by some critics.
What is the cinematic pay-off of these narrative and stylistic structures? Hou’s work is based on an exquisite, sometimes buried or mysterious, element of suspense – as rigorously as any Alfred Hitchcock or Fritz Lang movie. The fact that “The Time of Love” is premised on the non-contact of its characters – separated by time and space, by shyness and tact – prepares us for the simple moment of a happy ending: the future lovers at last entwine fingers as they wait for a bus, and hold hands. On the page, it might have registered as nothing, or nothing much; on screen, within the unfolding of Hou’s cinematic strategies, it is a true and momentous event.
Likewise, the fact that Hou sticks to a similar way of presenting his repetitions and refrains – always filming the pool games from the same loose zone defined (although never just statically, as is sometimes incorrectly assumed by his commentators) by a spot at one end of the room (and the pool rooms, in different regions, all have roughly the same architecture) – makes his breaks with this pattern remarkably lyrical and dramatic, as when Shu Qi discovers a letter in the box out the front of the pool hall.
It’s another great lesson in cinema.
MORE Hou: Good Men, Good Women
© Adrian Martin 2006