Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Zui hao de shi guang / (Three Times) - Movie Review

Zui hao de shi guang / (Three Times) 2005

“Rain and tears
both I shun
for in my heart there’ll never be a sun”
Aphrodite’s Child

One of the most difficult emotions to capture honestly on film is love. What? But what about all those romantic comedies, dramas, epics, etc? Yes, well, when was the last time you went to any film labeled “romantic” and genuinely felt that the two characters were in love? Besides those cowboys. Almost never, in our expert opinion. Which is why there is great reason to cheer with the U.S. debut of the international critic’s darling “Three Times” by Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien. Hsiao-hsien, a favorite of the Cannes Film Festival where most of his films seem to perennially be up for the Palme D’or, when they are not actually copping the grand honor returns with a movie that examines the courtship ritual surrounding two lovers. Or six. Depends on your point of view.

The trick up his crafty little sleeve is that he has imagined three separate couples throughout the past century and opted to cast the same two actors as the leads in each separate storyline. The film begins in 1966, with a stunning dance around love; continues backwards into 1911 with a look at a star crossed duo and finally ends up in the present day with a feisty young pair of lovers. The time traveling sets of lovers are portrayed flawlessly by Shu Qi and Chang Chen.

A Time for Love” is the title of the opening act set in and around a local billiards parlor within the industrial landscape of Kaohsiung City. We meet Chen, a young soldier who spends his free time shooting pool with his eye firmly on the young hostess in charge. When his favorite gal departs for a different billiards parlor, his lingering gaze falls upon her replacement, the gorgeous young May. (Seriously, May is played by the stupefyingly gorgeous Shu Qi! What a looker! And those outfits she wears! Tasteful yet kicky. Love!) Soon, they are circling each other in one of the most ravishing and tender depictions of young love we have ever seen depicted on the silver screen.

Hou Hsiao-hsien establishes a tone and pace for the first film that can best be described as that first blush of romance. The camera lingers, never calling undue attention to itself as it flows throughout the scenes. His color palette is filled with the bold patterns and rich colors of mid-60s design elements set against the urban grit of a crowded cityscape. This is not a film that dwells on action, complicated plots or intricate dialogue. It is a film that attempts to explore the emotions surrounding romantic love through its tonality, pacing, ravishing visuals, sound (particularly in its careful selection of music) and the chemistry between its talented young leads.

When Chen and May exchange their first few looks, we feel it right down to our bones. As the edge closer and closer to each others hearts, we were held enraptured in their glow. The first part of the trilogy of films that comprises “Three Times” may be one of the most powerful depictions of love we have ever seen. It was pure bliss from playful start to wistful finish.

A Time for Freedom”, the second act of the film set in 1911 during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan is the most stylistically daring of the pieces. Taking a cue from its timeframe and his apparent love for cinema, Hsiao-hsien opted to play the piece as a Silent Film! Cheeky devil. It tells the tale of a young courtesan whose friendship with a married diplomat turns to love over the course of their conversations. His sense of pride, respect and honor forbid him confusing his need to satisfy his lust with engendering love. Which is just what the young courtesan needs most from a seemingly caring man who has captured her heart completely. But, as is the case in their time and place they must never reveal their deepest emotions knowing full well it can never become a reality.

And finally, “A Time for Youth” set in present day Taiwan2005. We find our time traveling actors portraying two outwardly brash and emotionally stifled young hipsters who careen through the streets of the city on a speeding motorcycle. Their romance, if you can call it that echoes their outwardly careless nature. Jing lives a freewheeling lifestyle and sexuality incorporating her emotionally clinging girlfriend and her bracingly cool boyfriend who vie for her affections. Their love affair – not quite doomed but certainly not flourishing is played against the cool color palette of a neon glow. They express more emotion via text message conversations than they do in person.

While this film dances around the various aspects of love, it absolutely blindsided us with its complex range of emotions. The tender fear of intimacy that the young couple feels in 1966 as they begin to feel each other out is the starting point for the second act. When we meet the Silent Lovers of 1911, we discover two people who are too intelligent and mature to play any adolescent charades as they explore their relationship. When the time tossed duo has reached the present day, any sense of flushed timidity or respectful adoration has been replaced by tactless mind games and animal urges.

While a case may be made that the director is implying we have lost our sense of romance over the years and replaced it with pure lust, we think the real glory of this wonderful movie is how Hsiao-hsien manages to incorporate all the emotional ranges within each storyline. The young soldier in Act One is hardly noble in his fluid ability to replace one lovely young lass for another.

The courtesan and client in Act Two understand too well the societal framework for their relationship and dare not cross its boundaries. The two hipsters in Act Three may seem shallow in their inability to communicate on any level besides sexual if it weren’t for the genuine emotion they obviously battle to express and suppress.

What Hsiao-hsien has done is to paint three involving, visually intoxicating and emotionally honest portrayals of the many facets of love. We have never felt so in love with the possibility of young love and the pure spirit of moviemaking in quite awhile. If the film seems to linger too long in places – each act is roughly forty minutes long – it more than compensates by the power of its storytelling. Some of the images are so gorgeous and so heartfelt in their connectedness to the central characters emotions; we can forgive the slight excess. We would gladly have sat through one more scenario all for the glory of bathing in the opening and closing shots that capture this beautiful films essence. One of the loveliest films about love we have ever seen. Bless you all!

Directed by Hou Hsiao Hsien
Written by Chu T’ien-wen

Shu Qi as May / Courtesan / Jing
Chang Chen as Chen / Mr. Chang / Zhen
Mei-fang as Old Woman
Liao Su-Jen as Madam / Jing’s mother
Di-Mei as May’s mother / Madam
Chen Shih-shan as Haruko / Ah Mei
Lee Pei-hsuan as Hostess / Micky

Cinematography by Mark Lee Ping-Bin
Film Editing by Liao Ching-Song
Costume Design by Wang Kian-Yi (Stylist 1911), Tsai Yi-Tsen (1966), Wu Mei-Hui (2005) and Tan Hsin-Wem
Production Design by Hwamg Wem-Ying
Art Direction by Wang Chih-Liang



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