THREE TIMES (Hou Hsiao-hsien). 139 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (March 31) at the Cumberland. See Film Times. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
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. In the second, set in Japanese-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 third, 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, sound and composition. 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, love and liberty are tied to a particular time. Communication is a huge theme. Snail-mail figures prominently in the first two films, while in the contemporary section, the nominally free characters have so many ways to connect instantly yet seem as lonely and alienated as ever.