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
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