Easily one of the best filmmakers in the world, and we’ve never had the pleasure of seeing one of his films in a theater before now (and it will likely be a while before we do again â€” "Three Times," like many of Hou’s films, has not secured a US distributor). We’ve heard that people were disappointed with "Three Times" when it premiered at Cannes; we can’t say yet how we’d place it in comparison to Hou’s previous work, but we liked it very much.
The film is composed of a trinity of love stories, all starring Chang Chen (Zhang Ziyi‘s bandit lover in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") and Taiwanese megastar Shu Qi â€” the first ("A Time for Love") is set in 1966, the second ("A Time for Freedom") in 1911, and the third ("A Time for Youth") in 2005. "A Time for Love" details the charmingly awkward romance between May, a pool-hall girl, and Chen, a young man who’s just enlisted in Taiwan’s mandatory military service. May is giggling and young, and Chen tongue-tied, and when she gets a new job he spends hours tracking her down, only to find her and not know what to talk about. That’s all right â€” the music, period pop songs like "Rain and Tears" and "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," swells up to carry them through. "A Time for Freedom" takes place in a period when Taiwan was still occupied by Japan. Mr. Chang works at revolutionary-minded paper, and spends his time with a courtesan at an upscale brothel who has hopes that he’ll take her as a concubine, though his thoughts are more devoted to politics. The section is filmed in semi-silent movie fashion, with instrumental music taking the place of any sound or dialogue â€” the characters mouth words, which then show up in intertitles laid over a gilded wall. "A Time for Youth" picks up where Hou’s 2001 "Millennium Mambo" left off, in a sprawling concrete Taipei throbbing to a techno beat, in which people seem to have all the freedom in the world and no idea what they want.
If this sometimes sounds like Wong Kar-wai, well, there’s a touch of that, particularly since both filmmakers seem recently consumed with a melancholy nostalgia that sweeps up from the past to encompass events as they occur. But Wong is one for grandiose, epic romanticism â€” Hou is a minimalist, and the love stories in "Three Times" are small, quiet things blown up large, ephemeral relationships with much left unsaid that are quintessentially more human than Wong’s gorgeous cinematic stylings. Chang and Shu aren’t in any way playing heroic lovers over time â€” each interlude stands alone, but, taken together, they gather force, hinting at something epochal, though what that is, we doubt Hou knows. He remains focused on depicting the intense, fleeting sweetness of the moment.
"Three Times" currently has no US distributor.