© 2015 by James Clark
A film like Three Times (2005) comes to us as an exquisite joy and an excruciating horror. Hou Hsiao Hsien has conjured there an arresting exploration of the volatility of human presence; and with the exception of a few filmic gourmands happy to absorb the flavors and happy to stay satisfied therewith, his effort has gone unnoticed. As I proceed to illuminate the workings of this adventure, there is, over and above a metaphorical lighting of a candle, the difficult business of such a dearth of fresh air snuffing out its efficacy. Therefore, the film’s telescoping of three eras (situated, in order: 1966, 1911 and 2005) draws attention to a long and virtually frozen engagement.
You can’t say that Three Times doesn’t effectively pinpoint a percolating, passionately pursued through the ages, not only including but especially in our time. And it leads this thrust with a rich, palpable and witty musical score. It’s 1966 and those doo-wop stalwarts, The Platters, who may be done at home, submerged by the likes of “California Dreamin’,” delivered by the archly-named, Mamas and Papas, still make waves with their tight harmonies (their Enigma Variations)—in Taiwan, in and about the peripatetic business of May, a billiard hall hostess. The TNT comprising this apparently low-key glimpse must wait a bit while we come to a moment of body language in perfect confluence with the disc’s final bat flip in watching the ball clear the fence. An admirer of May, namely, Chen, a young man on leave from military service and trying to locate her current workplace, tosses his match, on lighting his smoke, spot-on the downbeat pushing the final lyric, “eyes!” In Part 3, it’s 2005 and Hou is up to his well-established genius of limning nearly deliriously bad musical and poetic talent. The culprit, Jing (even a jingle would be a relief from what she does) is a partially blind epileptic getting up in the middle of the night, for a smoke, from a bed including her Tooth Fairy photo-guy, Zhen, picking up a fluorescent lighting panel and casting it on a dark wall setting off another crescendo in the form of photos of domestic scenes disclosing attractive women—one instance of which involving a variant of Cherner chairs. The first flash on the gallery wall comes to coincide with that split second (trailing to infinity) when Chen put his all (like Bautista) into tossing that match. The geisha, Mei, in Part 2, her options dwindling, her vocalizing to zither accompaniment being tightened to a kind of death rattle, turns it all around (for how long?) in putting her long-standing, stuffed-shirt (Gerbier-like) Army of Shadows revolutionary-client’s face towel back to perfect balance with a graceful and definitive twist of her hand. Once again, the pristine downbeat coming through stormy times.
Hou Hsiao Hsien is well aware that his priorities constitute a vast and widely ignored repository of the constructs of other filmmakers. In addition to that, his films—very prominently in the case of such an extraordinary menu as Three Times—bring onstream others’ works in that vein to bring focus to the prospects of whatever scenario he may be driving. It is probably advisable here at the outset to complete the roster of filmic ingredients brought into the picture, before conducting a transparency of the full-blown movement of those downbeats. It is far too facile to frame this triptych as a banquet of anomie, on the wrong side of solid relationships widely understood, so tempting to bring to bear with regard to the film’s protracted sensuous disarray. (The first thing to catch us up, at the pool hall, is the song, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and its lament that lovely flames tend to die.) To sidetrack, or at least inconvenience such timid arrogance, we’ll spotlight its infrastructure of filmic masterworks bringing to bear a research regime to walk away from only in transparent despair.
The film’s first instalment, titled, “A Time for Love,” salutes the endeavors of that Casualty Ward Romantic, Wong Kar Wai, in particular the pitch-perfect eroticism of his Chungking Express (1994). There we have a fast-food-bar server, far from wedded to her job and falling for a man in uniform (a cop whose beat includes her stand); but choosing to move to California and then a stint as an air hostess while still regarding that long-shot cop, who warms up to her more slowly but more enduringly, as a dark horse in a world of super-horsepower. Chen locates wanderlust May still confined to the quite modest-scale island of Taiwan; but as he holds her hand before rushing off to the unromantic bus station in order to reach his base by the next morning, there is a likeliness they will never meet again. (The self-doubt shown by the slow progress of each in clasping the other’s hand is eloquent and heart-rending.) Their 4-part theme song about “laughing friends deride” (spinning off to cliquishness that is not them; but also a death-knell to love) circles around them like a hungry hawk ready to claim unwise prey.
“A Time for Freedom,” the episode following the vaguely picaresque May and Chen, is a silent opera (haunted by Madame Butterfly), its silence serving to maintain a suitably eerie emotive baseline for Mei and at the same time delineate the cardboard gut of a smug, soft and delusional revolutionary. In launching such a crosscurrent to the previous saga, Hou (as so often) dips into the Jean-Pierre Melville playbook, with special emphasis here upon Army of Shadows’ Mathilde, an intelligent, brave and loyal servant unfortunately affixed to a statistic (with more statistics to come, in Part 3). The silent motif serves to bring us a remarkably visceral portrait of an advanced tunesmith out of her element in the dying days (1911, to be exact) of the Qing Dynasty. Its throes also bring to light the bankruptcy of small people basking in the approval of reflexive humanitarian conformists like themselves. “A Time for Freedom”—an exercise bathed in harsh irony—lifts from its landslide the truly liberating discernment, silently sustained, that mass movements (perhaps particularly those verbose about their “human” priorities) are to be played along coquettishly, while life with real weight is distilled in intimate silence.
“A Time for Youth” (following Mei’s graciously deferring to the young geisha whose consequent departure dashes her hopes of a wider sphere of action) is a remarkable consideration of young hipsters running on empty. Those ageing hipsters—Dr. Lecktor and Francis Dollarhyde, a.k.a. the Tooth Fairy—giving us a dash of squalid disarray apropos of a fortune cookie facsimile of the adults-only problematic of pervasive sloth, in Michael Mann’s Manhunter, are the doggerel talents stalking the final scene of astronomical viscosity. Whereas Dollarhyde, finding in ISIS-like, obliquely backward official, Lecktor, a mentor on behalf of a trail of terror and gore and in one of his resentful escapades taping a journalist’s mouth before butchering and then torching him, Zhen, in the course of his publicity work for a lovely and trite pop singer, has her photographed with suitably edgy, trendy eyes while having her mouth taped. This pair of illiterate media poseurs moves about on a low-powered motorcycle and his helmet has been inscribed with the slogans, “Don’t copy.” “Don’t be blind.” The only real threat they pose is killing some listeners—from the boredom of the music or from the appalling, obviously unfelt lyrics. “Please open your eyes/ Open your ears/ Check your brain/ To realize what you want/ To realize who you are/ No one can decide how you feel/ Don’t be afraid to liberate deep inside your mind…” etc. Not entirely unaware that she’s in the wrong line of work, Jing disappears from view on the back of his bike on a busy expressway. (There is no sign of a destination for that rushing.) Their being flotsam and jetsam in the metaphorical context of Manhunter raises the consideration: Is avoiding being a serial killer a big deal? They are definitely something else than the Tooth Fairy who reminds us of General Sherman’s march of terror through Dixie. But nevertheless their deadness of heart (more goofy than gory) puts them in league with him, prompting at this point, our really getting under the skin of this disparate but significantly linked cluster of distress.
As a prelude to developing the cinematic coherence of the phenomena onscreen, let’s consider the casting of actors Shu Qi and Chang Chen, the protagonists of all three of the initiatives. Shu Qi left Taiwan for Hong Kong when she was 17, and soon she was in demand for that area’s porn movies. Her glamor-girl, streamlined and symmetrical face with large expressive eyes and wispy body enabled her to become, with work, an exciting practitioner of motion and gesture. Chang Chen (like Shu Qi, 28, when the film was shot) had been in films since he was child and grew up to be right for vehicles calling for lithe athleticism. His presence included a rather dour facial set by which to gravitate to roles calling for man-of-few-words authority. He played in three Wong Kar Wai films (as the boyfriend) before this one. Both players resurfaced, in the form of adversaries, in Hou’s The Assassin.
Let’s join them, in that final segment which veers close to the aura of improv, as they whip along a series of highways on his cheap bike—the cement of the roadway a deadened grey to match the perfunctory architecture all around. (The sky completes that chromatic version of routed hygiene.) Jing’s face is so stricken that you’d be tempted to look for bullet wounds if you didn’t have an impression that anything as intense as scarlet is not possible in this part of the world—in fact the city of Taipei. Though in one sense she seems close to death’s door, those enormous sloe eyes rising above carriage-trade cheekbones, with long, black hair flashing about, assure us she’ll be around for a while. Chang Chen’s gimlet eyes that seem to have just returned from a long stint in a sun-glaring desert regard the route in such a way as to completely negate the notion of the journey being half the fun. And yet, putting in a rather startling appearance amidst these sad sacks unaware of what a nice homage is underway to Jean-Pierre Melville’s way with grey at the outset of Army of Shadows (of which we have just seen much in Segment 2), the camera angle upon the leaden riders begins to catch the roller-coaster flutter of the speeding vehicle amidst ramps pulling upwards, and downwards. Those protagonists, of course, fail to elicit as much as a scintilla of excitement. But, in accordance with the divulgence underway, we can be sure that it did not go entirely unnoticed.
So it is, that after landing at Zhen’s surprisingly well designed and maintained apartment (that discharge of energy on the road still out there at some inscrutable degree), she gets out of bed after some matter of fact coitus and the world becomes magical for her. How long will it last? Is that the right question? We’ll keep our eyes and ears wide-open here in that blue-glowing hallway so far more compelling than her ludicrous musical activities. Unlike the mawkishness of the business of selling her song and selling her bid for solvency (with him onstage, regarding himself as cool while snapping close-ups of her world-weary triumph), here we have candid images of women revealing who they really are, so tempting to a pro reflexively resorting to lucrative humbug. The lighting effect in that narrow corridor brings to mind an explorer having fortuitously plunged into a hidden cave. (The episode begins with showing only her feet and legs, before tripping into the moment of vision. [Given the whole swathe of her sensibility, we can confidently suppose that she’d “seen” this wall a hundred times, but that only now was she alert to biting the bullet.) Various juvenile tiffs follow; but what we must follow is their joyless “reunion” involving another ride on that grotty magic carpet of an artery. This time there is no blood moving discernibly from the dynamic heart; the vista is totally flat, lacking any purchase upon topspin. Glimmers could happen again someday, but we have no confidence that that pair could be anything more than those statistics the media consistently overrates on its march to stay stunned. An adult figure like Mei would see them as a little plus and a big minus.
Another young couple, far less besotted with facile, urban “rebellion,” come our way in the film’s first instalment, about rural diversions, particularly, billiard parlors. Shu Qi’s May, like Faye Wong’s Faye, in Chungking Express, is cute as a button and as emotionally dependable as a ladybug. (The runaway girl in the first part of the latter film’s segment two is called May.) Here the roadblock to digest is not big city phoniness about innovation but modern female imperatives as to eluding the entrapment their hormones snooker them into. May—by comparison with her low-wattage predecessor at the pool hall, who had briefly turned Chen’s head at the outset (only to disappear and allow a bead upon the protagonist)—evinces a reservoir of sensual equilibrium and sparkle (impish eyes, and eye-contact) as to constitute an effective fit with the rockin’ harmonics of “Smoke Gets in your Eyes” (ironically and ominously his theme song for the romance with the former bird who flew the coop; and as heard while he cycles to the one that got away, optics bringing to bear hapless Flatty, in Goodbye South, Goodbye, and his semi-deranged lady love, Pretzel). May is a Wong Kar Wai-like leading lady, deceptively congenial and rhapsodic; but only over short periods of time. On tracking her to her family home during the run-up to, “It’s too late. The last train is gone…” Chen is given specifics about her present whereabouts, by her mother, who signs off, revealingly, “See you again!” The fact that virtually no one achieves the slightest continuity with May is carefully and wittily delineated in such a way as to reverberate within the overall crisis on tap in Three Times. During the snooker game in which the protagonists “get to know each other” (that phrase particularly ironic here) he is shown to be quite proficient, striking his white ball authoritatively and moving the other colors toward the pockets. She grimaces charmingly as she misses again and again. “You need to concentrate,” he notes, the wider aspects of that problem going viral after you’ve seen the whole film. On her next attempt she comes up with a notion that might have become the easy-come-easy-go keyword of her life—“Almost!” He retorts, not, perhaps, like her, inured to losing at pool and losing at life—“You haven’t made a shot in ages.” And he follows with an inflection indicative of his not being nearly as sanguine as she: “Neither have I, for that matter.” This handsome pair of carnally viable modernists (small-town Taiwan being connected enough for that much modernity) toying with some kind of confluence in the air (redolent in their body language and hesitations) and far over their head, also proceeds within a minefield consisting of three remarkably disparate pop songs (speaking directly, if subtly, that is, to the inspired DJ that is Wong Kar Wai). The eerie futural doo-wop treatment of that sentimental chestnut, “Smoke Gets in your Eyes”—about scrap-the-wedding; but about something far more serious than that (something Broadway and Tin-Pan-Alley composer, Jerome Kern, could never have dreamed of)—is counterpointed by a song Chen has heard a lot of on his military base, namely, “Rain and Tears,” a local effort, in English, delivered by a weepy chanteuse, to the effect of scrap-the-future. “Rain and tears, all the same/ But rain or sun, you’ve got to play the game/ When you cry and feel the pain/ You can pretend it’s nothing but rain…” This sad entry (and its radioactive terminology—on which, later) comes to hold them in its clammy grasp at their final moments together. (The Chinese disc which Chen dedicates to the first girl he met at the first pool hall is even worse. But it, too, pertains to Mei’s far from soft métier. “The seabirds’ cry by the sea/ so sad and melancholy/ Revives my sorrow and chills me to the marrow.”) Here’s what tellingly leads up to that queasy denouement cued up by her Grandma-Dreamin’ mom. At his arrival to her latest hideaway, she’s, as usual, the smiling, poised-or-sedated hostess, on the job to keep things light and easy. She turns around, sees him and, as never before, bends over and emits a disconcerting, embarrassed giggle. He smiles. All she can do is bend over again and give out another quiet giggle. “Long time no see,” is his gambit, surely, (though not overtly) somewhat disappointed in this moment on which he had expended much time and energy. She beams out one of her children’s TV smiles, maybe a bit awkward; and he watches her with affection. “How did you find me?” she asks—coming up with the perfect storm to kill a long-term intimacy. “Your mother gave me your address. It was hard to track you down,” he says by way of hurtling into a dead end. She says nothing. And therewith she says everything we have to know. Then he raises the idea of dinner after she’s finished her shift of hard to grasp shiftlessness. During the wait for that, she busies herself with getting him tea and a cigarette. The well-studied sweetness—if it were today and in the English-speaking world, she’d be giving us that sing-song twang timbre so apt for cooing at babies and infants—brings about the métier of geisha; and thereby she becomes exposed to the far more intensive regime of Mei. At the dumpling house she is cute reticence itself, launching a quick and radiant smile his way while chewing on a meatball. Steam nearly hides them (an ominous orientation like the pool sharks getting in the way at that first table, and Jing and Zhen drifting out of sight like tiny, graceless and lost birds). For a moment they are eye-to-eye; then he resumes impassively eating that once-hopefully magic dinner.
The “Rain and Tears” song holds forth for a few seconds into the opening of “A Time for Freedom.” This second and central consideration, with its social antiquity (1911 being the year) and antique, silent movie style, is the most forbidding part of the film; and it offers the most startlingly modern and difficult theme you’ll ever see in a movie theatre. And it’s on the opposite end of the universe from that insistence “to play the game.” Mei does not play a game of pretending (a la Billie Holiday) that her pain is like the physics of weather. Her quietly earthy and highly polished livelihood comes to us in a series of interactions with her employers, her colleagues and her clients. The brothel has been selected by a clique of radical chic operatives with a view to ousting a Japanese occupation—its main customer being “Mr. Chang” (very much a Gerbier “somebody;” and sporting a Samourai black fedora which he positions just so). Its main spellbinder is Mei, in whose beauty and delicate administrations he basks as being only apt for a cultural hero. He regales her with his entry into the confidence of another “big chief,” namely, “Mr. Liang.” “During my travels with Mr. Liang I met very important people. It has been very formative. Mr. Liang says China will not be ready to help us free ourselves from Japan for another three decades…” She shows real people skills in regard to his work and his family; and those skills allow her to bring to fruition the release of her junior partner, now pregnant, for the sake of becoming the concubine of her wealthy regular. In this, Mei would be knowingly endangering her own prospects for “freedom” in the form of toeing the line as to the low woman (concubine) on the totem pole. She runs past her own self-consciously superior humanitarian- regular the chance he might help her the way he so self-promotionally helped the other woman, by topping off her family’s too meagre funding toward the brothel’s escape clause. “I would like to know if you have any plans for me.” On seeing that he is far less than he had appeared, she is shaken for only a moment; and then, having moved behind where he is seated—placing his hand over his eyes for only a moment—she musters a half-smile. A cut to the one having been in the presence of “very important people,” now amidst his cutting-edge associates “making a difference” and having a board meeting at the brothel (one of the women in the entourage smoking a cigarette to leave no doubt about how daringly advanced she is), entails a pan to show Mei, off to a side of the room (where who knows what moves to benefit mankind might be put in motion), playing her zither and singing, which we hear, the song component not under the sway of silence. We hear very tense music and its vocalization, even more tense—especially striking in the main wash of silence—redolent of a trapped tiger. A coda shows the Madame’s husband puttering around the shadowy establishment’s corridors. We learn from the inter-title that an “uprising” is underway. The short shrift given this uprising conveys that little of significance is in fact happening.
Though perhaps hard to detect, the most historically advanced figure of that account (and the bellwether for the goings-on of the other two times) is the virtually imprisoned woman with a dead-end job which most observers would regard as “mindless” and “degrading.” Only, there is nothing oblivious about her actions (putting her in a radically different universe from that of the army of losers, beaten by life itself, all over the property). Though her range of motion (her “freedom”) is sharply curtailed, her comportment throughout has opened a door upon her remaining days so long ago. She was, after all, soberly aware that her only viable makeover would be as a concubine, a second-string wife. In this she could embrace with gusto “playing the game” with the likes of stiffs like Mr. Chang. (Such a game presupposes interactions of indeterminate illumination on a sensual freeway.) Chang’s Samourai link allows us to see her in the mold of Valeria/ Giuliana and Antonioni’s Red Desert. What she would intuit is that, like May, Chang does have a loving, lucid and attractive side, even though it rots away in seconds. (Jing’s girlfriend opens this dilemma, typically confining it to missed manipulative chances: “I burn my hand with this lighter every time I light a candle…”) That, though, is time enough for an adept musician to pull (in enjoying) the grace notes—like Chen’s downbeat, Jing’s moment of vision and Mei, herselve’s putting the face towel right—out of the air and process them harmonically, polyphonically, with a view to new heights comprising others and also comprising material, natural phenomena coming along or sought out.
One doesn’t get shafted by cowardly bunglers in a bungler’s paradise without some anger management issues. The protagonist’s stately attentions in her palace of roiling ambitions abound in embracing the motions and materiale of eventuation. It is that handsome and sustaining resource which ensures that Mr. Chang will be easy to disregard and forget. Hers will be a life overlooked by “important people.” Lucky girl, important people being chained to futility. The amount of time devoted to deadbeats would be a far from mathematical trick of the trade. (The scope for solitary contemplation and delight would likewise be up in the air, as would compositions drawn from a long history of deft and, to date, largely unforthcoming endeavor.) Three times. One leader.