Three Times (2005)
Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Good Men, Good Women: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Those of us that have seen Hou’s Three Times probably have a pretty good idea of our preference for each segment. Some fall for the 60’s pop infused romanticism of the first segment, some for the post-modern nihilism of the third segment, virtually no one falling in the second segment camp. It wasn’t until my recent rewatch of the film that I started to peel back some of the layers and discover why each time represented was as essential as the last. I no longer saw the pieces as disparate films all aiming toward a similar goal, but rather a cohesive work illustrating different elements of human interaction and interpersonal relationships in various stages of the development of Taiwanese civilization.
I suppose whether Hou believes in the existence of love or not remains to be seen. Regardless of the time or setting we are filled with a certain emptiness that demands satiation.
It is essential that they are played in the order that they are presented as each peels back some of the innocence and naiveté of young love and our perception of that love as outsiders. We start with the postcolonial sixties segment when Japanese colonialism has washed away all of the identity of Taiwan and we are left with a vacuum that pulls in various western influences to fill in the gaps. As our young male protagonist journeys down the Taiwanese highways from faceless town to faceless town searching in one nameless pool hall after the other, we begin to consider the futility of his mission to find the supposed love of his life. The emotions are condensed beautifully in to two songs, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” by the Platters and “Rain and Tears” by Aphrodite’s Child. The use of these songs on our protagonist’s quest is an effective cinematic device that puts its hooks in our souls and preys on our tendency to equate the butterflies of young love with the harsh realities of life.
When our protagonist eventually finds his love in one of many nameless pool halls we may be touched by the beauty of young love finally colliding and unrequited love finally coming to fruition, but ultimately the two lovers really don’t have much to say to one another. They are basically strangers in this new landscape of eroded identity. They don’t even know themselves, so how could they be expected to truly know another person and experience “love” if such a thing can exist for another nameless denizen of postcolonial society.
This feeling is further cemented by Hou’s use of meta-narrative elements to highlight the distance between these two strangers that shared little more than a few passing moments. He frames the characters impersonally at a medium distance and crowded by distracting elements. When the two finally meet once again, Hou uses people in the foreground to obfuscate our view of these two lovers. Even if we had a clear view of them we wouldn’t be able to understand what few words they do manage to speak to one another because of the noises of pool hall patrons clouding the environment. The only real communication we can find from these two potential lovers is through subtle body language early on in the segment. We can sense there are strong feelings there, but does Hou believe these feelings to be our base instincts at work and hormones out of our own control, or does he have a less cynical view of love?
The final segment illustrates love in a postmodern world of firmly established western influence. This segment quickly sets itself apart from the others in the passionate kisses between two lovers, and the camera reflects this passion by getting as close as it can.
He continues his meta-narrative obfuscation in the second segment. He does this through the arbitrary use of intertitles when the two lovers are attempting to communicate with one another. As the audience we are alienated by this technique, just as two lovers would have been alienated from one another because of outside influences. This is a time when Japan was just beginning their efforts to erode the identity of the citizens of Taiwan. Who would have time for a frivolous thing such as love during times like these? He continues the alienation by again employing impersonal framing at medium range like in the first segment, but we don’t get the benefit of catchy love songs to hook us in to the material. It would be inappropriate for Hou to do so, and his purposeful alienation of the audience further illustrates the disconnection between the potential lovers on the screen. In this instance our male protagonist is more interested in protecting his nation’s sovereignty and upholding the Confucian ideals of gentlemanly conduct than actually surrendering himself to the love of a woman.
The final segment illustrates love in a postmodern world of firmly established western influence. This segment quickly sets itself apart from the others in the passionate kisses between two lovers, and the camera reflects this passion by getting as close as it can. We are fully engaged in their young lust very early on, but learn that relationships are a far more complicated thing than a few bursts of passion. We again get the sense that these two lovers are unsure of their identities, but this time the alienation is fueled by their postmodern nihilism and in the end we aren’t able to find comfort in the noises and distractions that we surround ourselves with.
I suppose whether Hou believes in the existence of love or not remains to be seen. Regardless of the time or setting we are filled with a certain emptiness that demands satiation. We do what we can based on what we have available, but there are no easy answers. We’re all products of our own environments and circumstances out of our control, and the feelings of emotional alienation and malaise that you feel are nothing new to the human condition. The societal framework and rules of conduct that surround a human’s external behaviors may change over time, but that emptiness will always exist. There is no theoretical utopia for us to cling to, nor are there easy answers. You do the best you can with what you have available, but emptiness is an essential element of the human condition. Without the emptiness there is no search, and without the search there will be no fleeting moments of genuine connection with another human being. I may be reflecting elements of my own cynical nature in to my interpretation of Three Times, but we all bring a lifetime of baggage with us when approaching any piece of art, social interaction, decision, etc. Does Hou believe in the existence of love? I suppose it depends on how you look at it.
Hooks in our souls and preys on our tendency to equate the butterflies of young love with the harsh realities of life.