More accurately translated as ‘The Best of Times’, the latest picture from the most highly regarded formalist in world cinema is a delightfully structured and incredibly focused effort that breathes life into three very different moments in Taiwan’s past and present.
Three separate chapters bear the names of the broad topics that Hou pursues throughout the film: Love, Freedom and Youth. A lyrical romantic odyssey among smokey pool halls precedes a refined observation of national trauma as it is embodied in the ill-fated relationship of a literati and a courtesan. Each of these dreamier chapters seem to provide a contrasting commentary on the third, a longer and ‘slower’ (less elliptical) piece that fast forwards to modern Taipei in order to show how time in the present is experienced in a fleeting and momentary fashion that is completely disconnected from nostalgic memories of the past.
In each chapter, differing aspects of a relationship are depicted, always with the same pair of actors. In ‘A Time for Love,’ May (Shu Qi) is a wandering pool hall hostess who comes across a letter written by Chan (Chang Chen) given to the young woman who formerly held May’s job. When Chan comes back to look for the woman, he finds May instead. What follows is one of the best sequences Hou has ever created. Filmed persistently from the same camera position, May and Chan get to know each other, first while waiting for others to finish their game of pool, then over a few games themselves. This sequence features a remarkably shallow depth of field, vigorous rack focusing, and a wonderful interplay of figures in motion as people interchangeably block and reveal pockets of screen territory, and move out of frame only to reappear in unexpected positions. In billiards, Hou seems to have found the perfect associative link to his task as a filmmaker, especially as a master of staging. As Chan and May propel balls across the table, they also happen to orchestrate bodies in motion within a specified boundary. Unlike players of billiards, however, filmmakers can reach beyond their designated frame. It’s surprising, then, that so many choose not to do so. Isn’t choosing to keep all the action clearly visible and fixedly on screen something like a billiard player refusing to utilise all the available options and bank a shot off the side in order to play around an obstructing ball? By involving space beyond the extremes of the frame in this otherwise simple game of pool, Hou and his crew easily and yet magnificently display the virtuous staging and detailed camera work that they have become so well renowned for (let’s remember that Hou’s camera crew has for a long time been helmed by the supremely talented Mark Lee Ping Bing (In the Mood for Love, Vertical Ray of the Sun) and that Hou’s principal editors, sound and production designers have all been working together since at least the mid-1990s).
The most noticeable feature of the second chapter is the absence of voices. In order to surmount problems relating to the everyday use of language in 1911, Hou opted to shoot ‘A Time for Freedom’ in a similar fashion to a silent film, i.e. with intertitles and a background score. On two occasions, a traditional instrument is brought into the soundtrack, however, and here the music is noticeably synchronised with the action. Throughout this segment, notions of joyous love take a back seat to gender politics and national turmoil. May and Chan communicate with each other as equals, but May’s social position as a courtesan and unspoken ideals raging within Chan conspire to keep them apart in the long-term. Hou compensates for the invisiblity nature of the passion that bubbles underneath Chan and May’s calm exteriors with colourful and lush surface imagery that accentuates the affluence of the milieu. The vibrant costumes and sets wouldn’t look out of place in Hollywood’s recent Orientalist blockbusters. Also, the spellbinding intricacy of the first chapter is cast away in favour of far more variation in the position of the camera, exciting angular compositions and tighter shots that place more of an emphasis on the faces of the characters.
This is Hou’s visual style in its flamboyant mode. The old tricks remain though, with reveals occuring unexpectedly in slivers of the frame, and all entrances/exits handled from a rear doorway at the location. Perhaps the only issue with the story presented in ‘Freedom’ is its specific basis on events surrounding the Wuchang Uprising. If, like me, you need a refresher on Taiwanese history circa the 1910s, the producers of the DVD have kindly supplied a brief summary of this period among the special features. Have a glance at it if you’ve had enough of the sumptuous visuals and simply must know what’s going on with the story.
Difficult to comprehend and wide open to interpretation (I guess), ‘A Time for Youth’ portrays a raw and stark oppresiveness that navigates an extraordinary divergence from the elegant opulence of 1911. Its correlative is Millennium Mambo. Similarly to Hou’s previous film about modern-day Taipei, ‘Youth’ is presented as a set of alternately cold and sticky interiors. The moody blue lighting that encases Chan and May’s homes is decidedly unfriendly. Nightclubs and bars are drenched in warmer light, but the gaudy yellows, reds, and purples seem to connote edginess (if not sickness) rather than well being. Even the exteriors fail to provide a release, with dreary, overcast days chased by murky, underlit evenings. If facial clarity was a dominant aspect of the previous chapter, here Hou can’t recede the pale features of May and Chan deeply and quickly enough into the shadows. This relentless devotion to an atmosphere of uncaring alienation in ‘Youth’ makes the still very formalist chapter on ‘Love’ seem incredibly carefree and technically liberated in comparison. Living in the moment does not necessarily have anything to do with attaining happiness, this segment seems to suggest. Or perhaps not. The absence of an explanative narrator, as Millennium Mambo had, makes the search for direct meanings like this all the more complicated.
Unveiling the complex similarities and differences of the three segments that comprise Three Times may require a lot more in the way of reflection and conversation than the average viewer is prepared to undertake. ‘Love’ is perhaps the most accessible portion of Hou’s work since A Summer at Grandpa’s, and thus presents a great entry point for those curious to know what the fuss is all about. ‘Freedom’ is more of a challenge, offering more in terms of intellectual content than it might appear to do so at first glance. Hou’s selection of a silent movie format is sure to trigger an interesting debate in the future regarding its necessity. Finally, since ‘Youth’ lacks a tremendous emotional, sensory or narrative kick in its perhaps somewhat empty depiction of love as a momentary ‘fix’ for the younger generation, it is certain not to appeal to the majority (as might ‘Love’). Yet, it remains a fascinating here-and-now counterpoint to the (faded?) memory-based events of the first two chapters.
Hou has as good as promised to produce more films that, like Three Times, deal with his immediate personal feelings about the past. Hou’s approaches to Taiwanese history have always been fascinating, and given that Three Times is a typically adventurous and wonderful Hou picture, any such promise as this can be met with nothing short of the most eager anticipation.