After the head-scratching experience of watch Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “The Assassin,” which wowed me with resplendent visuals but baffled me with its labyrinthine plot, I wasn’t exactly eager to dig further back in the director’s canon – even in spite of the critical superlatives. It took a pre-show bumper card at this year’s New York Film Festival to convince me otherwise; Barry Jenkins cited Hou’s 2005 film “Three Times” as a major influence on “Moonlight.” So, naturally, I had to see what was up.
Turns out, “Three Times” is much more my style. No arcane knowledge of the Chinese wuxia genre is necessary to appreciate Hou’s craftsmanship. All it takes is some grasp of love and the frequent breakdown of communication when expressing it. This triptych of love stories between Shu Qi and Chang Chen is unique among films of its type – calling the connections between the three panels “thematic” doesn’t quite seem to grasp what Hou does here.
It’s as if the concept of love were a gemstone, and he shines a bright, pointed light at it from three different angles. Hou then delicately films the refractions, observing how this small shared moment between would-be lovers reflects back on the larger idea. The result is a tender but devastating work, one that easily rises to the level of my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”
In all fairness, nothing tops the first segment of the film. In 1966, a Taiwanese soldier falls for a pool-hall attendant in a reserved fashion befitting their time. They express their passion to each other in epistolary fashion, and Hou magnificently films their quiet longing as these separated sweethearts yearn to consummate their connection. When the man undertakes an arduous, patient journey to reunite, it’s nothing short of sublime.
The other two sections have their charms and insights as well, to be sure. The middle portion, a fraught relation between a courtesan and political firebrand set in 1911, is staged in the style of a silent film – title cards and all. It’s a significantly less rosy look at love, one where backgrounds and baggage play a determining factor in limiting the choices available to the lovers. This is most interesting to consider in tandem with the film’s final portion, set in then-modern 2005, where text messages inhibit the expression of desire between a rock singer and her romantic partner, a photographer.
How much or how little one wishes to draw parallels between segments seems mostly left to the viewer’s discretion; for me, “Three Times” is best appreciated as three discrete stories with a loose thread tying each together. Finding that string is important. But tugging on it too much disrupts the delicate juxtaposition.