Love Throughout The Ages: Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Three Times

Hou Hsiao Hsien

The Taiwanese New Wave that emerged in the 80s provided two of the best film makers of the modern age in the late Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Jonathan Rosenbaum has compared both of their work to that of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, in that they eschew the usual pacing and narrative structure of a film in order to portray life in a way that is more realistic. Both of their films are grounded in the troubled history of Taiwan and are deeply affected by the past that they are engaging, that of twentieth century Taiwan. Yang chooses to set most of his films in a contemporary setting (of his films, only the short film Expectations and his epic A Brighter Summer Day are set in the past) in an urban setting, usually Taipei, his characters tend to be middle class or upwardly mobile, but at heart of these films were the very human consequences of the legacy of Japanese rule and the onset of Westernization.  Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s films in comparison tend to be set in the past, in rural areas, focusing on the lives of primarily working class characters as they go about their day to day life.

Three Times (Zui hao de shi guang), is about three chronologically separate relationships between a man and a woman (played in each segment by Shu Qi and Chang Chen) at different times during Taiwan’s history. The mise en scène is minimalistic in each, with beautiful cinematography from longtime collaborator Mark Lee Ping Bin, and at times recalls the cinema of Italian Neorealism, as the camera lingers on naturalistic moments where nothing at all is happening. Each segment has common themes, but there is no overarching narrative between them other than the man and the woman, even the type of love that features in each is different. In each of the relationships, Hou is able to encapsulate what it means to live in that time, and the ultimate failure of all three relationships lies in the social and political problems of Taiwan during that period. As a result, while not a directly socio-political as his works such as City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster, at the core it remains a film in which the narratives of the characters are shaped by their situation.

The first segment, entitled A Time for Love, is set in 1966 and chronicles a budding affair between a young man in the army and a girl who works at a pool hall. All of the stories have a slight ellipsis in the form of non-chronological narrative, and so we see the soldier return to ask after the girl only to find she has gone to work somewhere else before we see the relationship develop. During this time, there was a great deal of tension between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China of which Taiwan is a part of, hence man character’s occupation as a soldier. The pair meet when he visits the pool hall and the relationship blossoms, and when he has to go away on army business they write to each other (communication is a key theme in all three of the segments). When he returns, he finds that she no longer works at the pool hall and manages to track her to another where she is now working. The pair go out for dinner before he has to return as he has to be at the base at nine the following morning. The pair holds hands at the bus stop, the closest that their relationship comes to fulfillment due to bad timing and the current state of society.

The second segment, A Time for Freedom, takes place earlier in 1911 and centers on the relationship between a courtesan and the man who comes to visit her. Visually the segment is reminiscent of Hou’s earlier fin-de-siècle film Flowers of Shanghai. In a bold movie, Hou treats this section similar to a silent movie, there is no spoken dialogue and it appears in writing between shots while the sound track consists of traditional folk music from the time. The man is a campaigner for the freedom of Taiwan from Japanese rule who visits the courtesan when he is in the area. Again communication plays a part as the man writes to her when he is away. However, the relationship is ultimately doomed because, as a believer in freedom, he is against concubines. Although the courtesan hopes he will take her as a concubine because of an act of kindness in another case, he refuses when she asks. His role in the social upheaval of the time makes a real relationship between the two and as a result it remains somewhat mercenary.

The final segment takes place in modern Taipei in 2005 and is titled A Time for Youth. This section deals with a love triangle between Zhen, a man obsessed with the main female character, Jing, who is an artist and musician that suffers from epilepsy, and her girlfriend. The man, a photographer, sees her performing at a bar and takes photographs of her to plaster his wall with as they begin to see each other. The pair communicates via email while the girl purposely ignores her phone through which her girlfriend keeps trying to contact her, leading to a bust up in which she tells Jing she will kill herself like Jing’s ex-girlfriend. While Zhen and Jing sleep together, there is a sense of alienation there brought about by the modernization of Taiwan that leaves Jing somewhat unstable, undermining the relationship. Under this pressure it cannot withhold, as in one scene Jing tries to flee the apartment only to be followed by Zhen, who she pushes away and kicks. Despite the freedom that the lovers have compared to those in the other segments, technology has left them unable to relate to one another on a level other than the physical.

In Three Times, Hou succeeds in creating a film in which Taiwan’s history is embodied by the people who live through it. The beautiful cinematography, the long takes and the slow pacing of the film allow it to slip into the rhythm of everyday life. There is just too much baggage, too many problems, and as a result the characters are unable to make the relationships work. Love remains just out of reach.

– originally published 11/10/2010

A lifelong lover of fantastic literature and sequential art, Paul Smith is a post graduate philosophy student and the man behind the up and coming literary criticism blog, Empty Your Heart of its Mortal Dream. If he could be any comic book superhero, he would be Blackagar Boltagon.