In Western films, romance follows a formula revered in fairy tales and Jane Austen, of meeting, bad luck and eventual redemption and resolution. In Asian cinema things are often more cerebral, with films like In the Mood for Love taking their time over the smallest of events. Taiwanese director Huo Hsieng-Hsang’s Three Times is definitely of the latter description – a beguiling anthology of three short films each describing a brief ‘time’ shared by two people. Set in 1966, 1911 and 2006 they reflect the expressions of love in different periods.
The titles of the segments are mournful and ironic: the first, A Time For Love concerns a couple kept apart by distance, conscription and shyness; A Time For Freedom is set amongst the servants of a wealthy businessman; and the modern third segment (A Time For Youth) is a story of world-weary young adults, one of whom is dying. ‘A Time For Innocence’ might have been a better translation – everyone here is guilty of something.
The three parts bear no overt relationships to each other – there are no crossovers or common images, and the actors portray distinct characters in each. However, this is no disjointed anthology, with the pieces gaining depth by their juxtaposition. The soullessness of A Time For Youth lends charm to A Time For Love, and the naivety of this opening short makes the constraints of A Time For Freedom much more oppressive. In each segment, the protagonists are lacking something the other couples have in abundance, as in each time love is made impossible in new ways.
Style complements substance throughout: from strong visual imagery to the appropriate use of (dated) music. The second film has no recorded dialogue and uses interspersed text panels to summarise what’s been said, deftly conveying the distance the characters feel from one another. The third film makes use of smart camera angles and hand-held work to reveal more intricate surprises. The variations of technique help to sustain interest, as well as make clear the rigourous control Hsieng-Hsang holds over every aspect of the film-making process.
According to the director, the stories are intended to focus on emotions rather than the politics of the age, but the historical sections reference Taiwan’s turbulent political history. Otherwise the stories are simple, with the scarcity of dialogue only occasionally making things difficult to follow. Luckily, the performances from the cast are rich and expressive: Shu Qi in particular is superb as the female lead throughout, her manner and age shifting unrecognisably from one segment to the next. So far, her only work in Western film was in The Transporter but she will no doubt soon be following Zhang Ziyi across the Pacific and into Hollywood. Her male co-star Chang Chen is less impressive and some of his long silences seem more sullen than profound.
Three Times is a film about love that lacks any romance, definitely leaning towards the “difficult” end of foreign cinema. The subtle and inconclusive screenplay is unlikely to thrill those who think with their hearts before their heads. The pacing is somewhat unfortunate – the first section overstays its welcome, a shaggy dog story with not enough personality to sustain it – while the more engaging third segment ends rather abruptly (it was originally intended to be a full film itself and could easily have sustained this). However, the trio form a finely crafted and balanced totality, a remarkably expressive piece of cinema that demonstrates care in every frame. Highly recommended.