Walking into the theater on Thursday night, my girlfriend casually remarked that she had never even heard of writer/director Hsiao-hsien Hou before. I had to admit that I couldn't place him either. Apparently, we are the last ones to arrive at the party. Based on this one film alone, Hou shows himself to be a filmmaker steeped in the school of Jean-Luc Godard, Stanley Kubrick, and other hugely talented directors who never let story get in the way of their visual poetry. There must be few filmmakers working today who have exhibited such unforced beauty in their work as exists in Three Times, or demonstrated such a clear understanding of how to tell a simple story through simple pictures, with no fat whatsoever. Most modern directors with money to burn want to demonstrate their complexity -- they want to inhabit the mind of the critic and outflank them. Hou, on the other hand, is a natural painter. Although I have no idea if its true, I imagine him shooting until all hours, torturing his actors and financiers, and indulging whatever maniacal perfectionism was necessary to create this beautiful film.
Three Times is a tone poem about the march of time and tide across the Taiwan Strait, seen though the eyes of a young man (Chen Chang) and woman (Qi Shu) who are forever there. In three self-contained vignettes, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the 1960s, and 2005, we see them living out their early-to-mid twenties and engaging each other in the style and speed of the day. In one era, they cautiously hover near an open doorway as the world races by outside. In another era, they are the ones racing, across a daunting highway on a rickety motorbike. In one era, they stand a respectable distance apart from one another when they speak. In another era, they pull each others' clothes off. As the world changes they remain young, but not necessarily youthful or unscarred. A self-confident and casual flirt in the laid-back atmosphere of the 1960s, the girl is hugely stressed and harried in 2005, and wears an epileptic's badge around her neck. It reads: "I suffer from epilepsy. Please do not call an ambulance. Just move me to a warm, safe place."