Infatuation. Routine. Heartbreak. The English title of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s 2005 film, Three Times, coupled with its premise – the same actor and actress play out romances in three different time periods – suggests a recursiveness. Perhaps these people are reborn in each era, destined to be drawn together? Perhaps, like Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (also released in the United States in 2006), the more fantastical stories are meant to reflect the core reality? Not so.
The first story takes place in 1966. A young man (Chang Chen), on leave from the army, seeks the affections of a pool hall hostess (Shu Qi). Titled “A Dream of Love” (though subtitled in English as “A Time for Love”), this is the most romantic of the tales. A swooning reverie to that beautiful, transitory moment when two hands first meet. But all romance gives way to either (sometimes both) routine or heartache.
Enter 1911. Qi remains a hostess, but now at a brothel. Chen is a political activist. Unlike the prior story, she is stuck in a system, and he is free. They love each other, maybe, but cannot fully express it. Their interactions are more of a deep friendship. Like his 1998 masterpiece, Flowers of Shanghai, which more fully explores this environment, sex is all around yet rigorously hidden. We know each relationship is predicated on money and a sort of desire; because we know that, it never needs to be spoken of or shown. But then, nothing is spoken; this entire story plays out like a silent film, the dialogue relegated to title cards. The section is titled “A Dream of Freedom,” fittingly.
The third story jumps to the then-present, 2005. Qi is a bisexual rock singer trying to wiggle out of one relationship (another girl with whom she lives) and into the arms of another (Chen, playing a photographer). In the prior two stories, the length of time between, and labor involved in conducting, written correspondence ensured each was sent and received with thought and care, or not received at all. In 2005, correspondence comes in so many forms that the characters have difficulty keeping up with it, even making excuses for why they didn’t reply.
This is the messiest section of the film, an makes for a difficult, wholly inconclusive, ending. As it should be. We know how to incapsulate and explain the past. The present is in constant anticipation of the future, uncertain and frightening. The section is called “A Dream of Youth.” “Youth” is viewed as an essential trait for those experiencing it, and a romantic time for those out of it. The reality of living it is far more volatile than either conception suggests. Perhaps the English rewording, “A Time for Youth,” is more fitting. Only the young could survive this world.
Unlike the vast majority of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s films, Three Times is actually available to buy on DVD, or stream through Amazon.