Three Times Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Taking place at key moments in Taiwan's history, Three Times tells three love stories that are all fairly typical of director Hou Hsiao-Hsien. The different pairs of lovers are all played by the same pair of actors: Chang Chen and Hou's current eye-candy, Shu Qi. All of the stories reflect the unease and hesitancy that is expressed in so many Taiwanese (and Chinese) movies. Lovers fail to connect at all in the story of a concubine and her master in 1911; she wants to be liberated from servitude and experience a real relationship, while he remains oblivious to this and strives for national freedom from Japanese colonialism. Of course, she can never express her desire and so she elegantly suffers a fate of quiet desperation. In the 1966 story, nationalism again throws a monkey wrench into a nascent affair, as a boy and girl silently flirt over a game of pool, mindful of the fact that he has to ship off for mandatory military service the next morning. They reconnect for another brief moment months later and some cautious hand-holding is all they dare with each other. The 2005 story is Hou in his current mode, examining the elusive present tense through club kids living their lives from moment to moment, without a past, a future or a purpose. All three stories are quite adeptly told (the concubine story is done as a silent film), even if the 1966 tale is a bit coy and cloying. It's always a pleasure to watch anything shot by cinematographer Mark Lee, and his contemporary neons and blacks are as rich and evocative as ever. This is an undeniably accomplished film with the most interesting content taking place in the 2005 segment about an epileptic singer and her listless, uncommitted, bisexual love life. She drifts between lovers and then chooses the one who is least committed to her (it's all she can handle). Her loneliness and vulnerability are expressed in a card she carries around with her in case she has a seizure; it asks anyone who finds her not to call an ambulance but to instead put her in a safe, warm place until the attack ends. It's the small, heart-rending details like this that give Hou's films their blindsiding emotional power. The only disappointment about Three Times is that the short story form isn't Hou's strength. His films build slowly and 40-minute segments don't exactly allow him to work his magic. (Paradis Films/Orly Films)