THREE TIMES (Hou Hsiao-hsien) Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Hou Hsiao-hsien's 2005 film is so suggestive and mysterious, you'll actually want to take a cue from the title and see it Three Times. Good luck. In its limited run at Cinematheque, it's getting a mere four screenings. No wonder one U.S. critic called it the best undistributed film of last year.
Three Times is a triptych of unrequited love stories that span nearly a century of life in Taiwan.
In the first, set in 1966, a pool hall worker (Shu Qi) catches the eye of a young man (Chang Chen) who's about to enter the army. Months later, the man - on a day pass - tries to track her down but discovers she's moved from town to town. In the second, set in Japan-occupied Taiwan in 1911, a brothel courtesan (Shu again) tries to get a progressive-thinking client (Chang again) to sponsor her so she can gain her freedom and become a concubine.
In the final film, set in 2005 Taipei, an epileptic bisexual singer (Shu) is torn between her clingy female lover and an already attached man (you guessed it, Chang).
Each film has its own tone, reflecting the look and pace of its era. Hou is a master of light and composition. There's not a single boring image. Like the clinking pool balls in the first section, the placement of every item in a shot communicates something about power and desire.
The triple casting of the actors is no mere gimmick, but lets us see how life and love are tied to a particular time. Communication, or its absence, is a huge theme. Look how letters and the passage of time figure prominently in the first two sections.
By contrast, in the contemporary section, the nominally free characters have so many ways to interact instantly with each other - phone, text message, e-mail - yet seem as lonely and alienated as ever.
Let's hope a distributor picks it up for a limited release at, say, the Varsity before the DVD hits the arty video stores. (March 17-21 at Cinematheque)