By Andrea Meyer
Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Three Times” tells three separate love stories in three separate eras in the years 1966, 1911, and 2005 starring the same lovely actress and actor, Shu Qi and Chang Chen, to create a triptych of love in all its intricacy. In 1911, during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, a courtesan waits for the sporadic visits of the married diplomat she loves, yearning for their relationship to develop into something more permanent. In 2005, a broody bisexual performance artist juggles her needy girlfriend and a photographer (who also has a girlfriend) on the back of whose motorcycle she finds freedom and release from the drama.
It is the first segment, however, entitled “A Time for Love,” that captures the heart as if by lasso. With stunning, saturated cinematography that recalls the work of Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai and the songs “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “Rain and Tears” music dripping with an innocent romance that seemed to disappear with the era depicted played repeatedly, the scene is set for a pool hall girl with a repertoire of breathtaking outfits to fall for a soldier about to leave for training. He writes to her. She leaves her job for another. He sets out to find her. They spend a summer evening together. That’s all there is to it. The film is a little slice of perfection that makes you smile and gives you hope that life is sweet, endings are happy, for every he there is a she.
What Hou has accomplished is no small feat. There are too many celluloid love stories to innumerate and few make us feel anything at all. Those that do more often than not do so through shameless manipulation: A swelling soundtrack; gauzy mood-lighting; an interminable series of obstacles set along the path to the poor lovers’ kiss; meaningful pauses, tears, and secondary characters’ crying, cheering, shaking their butts when lips finally meet. Running breathless through the rain also never hurts in slo-mo if the footage still doesn’t cut it. But a genuine, simple story that gives you the chills? Not so many of those out there. What does it take to tell a perfect love story? The kind that makes you believe in love all over again?
“In the Mood for Love” (Wong Kar-wai): Hong Kong’s preeminent director of amorous films tells stories of cheating, dumping, breaking up and yearning more often than relationships working out. While this film, true to form, is about a man (Tony Leung) and woman (Maggie Cheung) brought together because their spouses are having an affair, it is one of the most beautiful depictions of love ever made. Besides the sensuality of Nat King Cole tunes and sumptuous images captured by Wong’s brilliant cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the movie is flawless in its depiction of yearning, of the purest passion yet untainted by consummation.
“Before Sunset” (Richard Linklater): The first film in Linklater’s duet, “Before Sunrise,” in which Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy spend one night together in Vienna before he boards a train, is pretty damn charming. But it’s the second, in which they meet again many years later, that touches perfection. Older and wiser now he is unhappily married and has a child, she is in a tumultuous relationship Jesse and Celine speak with greater insight about their emotional lives, meandering through Paris first by foot and then by taxi, eventually arriving at her apartment and a scene in which a song, a confession, a careless act, a look, a laugh combine to create a moment of rare perfection.
“Moulin Rouge” (Baz Luhrmann): Many movies are bolstered by one lover who dies, leaving the other alone and doomed to a life of emptiness without that person who remains crystallized in the mind as the romantic ideal. “Wuthering Heights,” “Betty Blue,” “Camille,” “Ghost.” (Not all of them are very good.) As a device, it’s a good one, and one of my favorites is Lurhmann’s portrait of doomed ardor, which meshes lush, frenzied visuals enhanced by Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor’s matinee-idol good looks and likeability with musical medleys that merge the likes of Elton John, David Bowie, Kurt Cobain, the Beatles and Fatboy Slim, a thrilling (or ludicrous, depending on who you ask) plot and the most traditional of purveyors of doom, tuberculosis. In any case, while the love lasts it is absolutely breathtaking, gorgeous, thrilling.
“50 First Dates” (Peter Segal): No insult to Pete (who you may or may not remember from “The Nutty Professor II” and “Anger Management”), but it’s the concept here (the script is by George Wing) that works magic executed sweetly by stars with serious comic chemistry, Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler, as Lucy, a woman who suffered a brain injury that erases her memory every day, and Henry, the commitment-phobe who loves her. The gags are silly (e.g. a smart-assed walrus plays a supporting role), the humor broad, but the premise is transcendent. Every day Henry has to find new ways to make this woman with no memory of him love her and his efforts are truly inspirational and touching.
“Next Stop Wonderland” (Brad Anderson): This Boston-based indie that was not seen by enough people takes on philosophical territory, the role of fate and destiny, that was mined by the late Polish master Krzysztof Kieslowski in his brilliant “Red.” Recently dumped by a loser (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), Erin (Hope Davis), holes up at home focusing on herself rather than looking for love. Meanwhile, we follow the life of hapless Alan (Alan Gelfant), a would-be marine biologist whom the film leads us to believe is Erin’s soulmate. The two lives crisscross, never quite making contact, while other potential lovers risk preventing the encounter. When a series of serendipitous events finally land Erin quite literally into the arms of Alan, it is quite simply a perfect cinematic moment. Just try to hold back the tears.
For more on “Three Times,” see the official site.