Zui hao de shi guang

(Three Times, Taiwan/France - 2005)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Qi Shu, Chang Chen, Fang Mei, Su-jen Liao
Genre: Romance/Drama
Director: Hsiao-hsien Hou
Screenplay: T'ien-wen Chu & Hsiao-hsien Hou
Cinematography: Pin Bing Lee
Composer: -
Runtime: 139 minutes

Human behavior - choices, opportunities, and desires - is greatly affected by the time period they live in. It’s largely the determining factor in the success or failure of the three short love stories dealing with longing and memory Hou presents. All are set in Taiwan, but take place distinctly in 1966, 1911, and 2005 respectively. Each story features Qi Shu and Chang Chen as lovers, almost as if they were reincarnated. The stories have two main themes, the plight of females - logical since their freedoms have changed greatly in the last 100 years - and how these freedoms and the various technological changes effect the age old romantic and communicative disconnect.

The lightest and most popular of the stories is the first, set in 1966 when Hou was in his 20’s. It’s the most personal with Hou warmly remembering his skirt chasing days. Chen tries to visit a girl he’s written who works in a pool hall before he goes away with the military. She’s no longer works there, so he gets interested in Qi instead. The initial expressive moments of love when you are fascinated with the possibilities of the other are depicted. Little movements and slight glimpses have profound meaning, while the actual discussion about their game of snooker is all throw away. As there’s little time for anything to come of the attraction, the person being glanced at is always off screen, ever so slightly out of grasp. The romantic tension is very high because they have so little time to decide whether they are willing to risk their hearts.

The second segment is also well suited to Hou’s minimalist strengths. All three reference and add to previous Hou films - The Taiwan trilogy, Flowers of Shanghai, & Millennium Mambo respectively - but 1911 is the most radical and daring advance because Hou chooses to do it as a silent film complete with intertitles and piano score (but still in color???). The restrictive style matches the freedom of the times. In any romance both members must choose it, but here the female courtesan would like to but lacks the power and standing to get the already accounted for political activist to go any farther than employing her. The moody atmosphere with feelings expressed though unstated seems most suited to this story, though it works in all three in different ways. This solemn story reflects a dark restrictive period of Taiwanese history where they were subject to oppressive Japanese control.

Jumping ahead to 2005, females finally have equal freedom. Unfortunately, things don’t work out with any greater regularity, which is that much harder to deal with because now there’s no one else to blame. That leaves Technology, which provides people with the most possibilities to connect, but helps leave everyone too busy or distracted. When people do see each other there’s so much noise, chaos, and of course technology there’s no intimacy; you merely occupy similar space. Celebrity is now king, with Chen playing a photographer who is more interested in singer Qi as subject for his camera. He fetishizes over ways to photograph her, but we sense she could be any star. She abruptly dumps her girlfriend for him, but it’s more that she’s impatient and selfish and he’s new and theoretically different. All the beauty has been drained from this raw and desperate story, with harsh blues and overpowering white lights replacing the sensuous and luminous green and yellow of the first segment and reds of the second. 1966 shows the American influence through pop songs, 1911 the Japanese through formal stoicism, but 2005 really doesn’t show us anything we aren’t numb from seeing or tell us anything we shouldn’t already know. That’s partially by design, but it’s kind of like if I wanted to see this I would just subject myself to the torture of going to a night club.



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