Had a chance to see a premiere screening of Three Times on Saturday. The still images I had seen looked beautiful, and I was intrigued by the idea of presenting three love stories with the same actors in different, critical points in Taiwanese history. This was my first Hou Hsiao-Hsien (HHH) film, and I wasn’t totally sure what to expect. A. O. Scott over the NY Times said it is “A Masterpiece. This is why cinema exists.” How could I not see it?
Three Times is heartbreaking. Three times over you get to meet these two enchanting people – get to experience that chance for a new beginning – and three times over you watch circumstance or personal failure muck things up. And as the viewer I’m helpless to offer aid; I can only witness the disintegration. That was the heartbreaking part for me. But I don’t think that is what HHH had intended entirely. In fact, I was surprised to read that HHH gave the film the Chinese title Best of Times, a nod to the nostalgia of his youth during these critical times in Taiwanese history when he was chasing pool-hall girls and enjoying American pop tunes from the 60’s. The best of times always seemed to end up being the worst of times for our two leads.
But I loved the long moments when the camera would fix on a characters face after a significant event, and like the character, I had to go through the whole emotional mess with them as I watched each nuance play out on their faces. There were no quick cuts to distract me; no special effects to detract from these bare, essential human experiences.
Leaving the film I had heard terms thrown around among the audience, like minimalist cinema, but I wasn’t totally in the know about that, so I went and looked it up. As it turns out, I’m something of an unknowing fan. This Wikipedia articles references two of my very favorite films, Last Life in the Universe and 3-Iron (Oh! Don’t get me started on 3-Iron. That film, for me, is one of those instances in which art rises above moral obligations, and I’d tell you to see this film, even if you have to steal it.)
But I definitely see the minimalist effect at work in Three Times. I was very fond of the long, uncomplicated shots; focused down a corridor with beautiful ambient light in which servants at the brothel weave in and out as they go about their daily chores, or a recurring shot in the pool hall looking out on to a courtyard with a gloomy sky as May prepares for the night’s business at the pool table.
Is this film the reason that cinema exists? Well, I probably wouldn’t jump on that bandwagon. (Besides, there are days when I feel pretty sure that Labyrinth and any John Cusack film are the reasons that cinema exists.) Three Times is definitely a compelling reason to follow cinema. It’s a mess of a romance. But then again, sometimes the messy romances are the only ones worth pursuing.