Zui hao de shi guang
Review by Chiranjit Goswami
Posted on 15 September 2005
Source First Distributors Ltd. 35mm print
Reviews: The Puppetmaster
I’ve always been intrigued in the innate human interest in the number three, especially its tendency to become evident in conventional literature and storytelling. Its presence can often be seen in religions, myths, and children’s stories. One of the most obvious instances for this occurrence is the predisposition of authors – no matter what medium they choose to work within – to employ the three-act structure. There is a reason the traditional three-act structure has endured for centuries. It provides a simple blueprint for how anyone can effectively tell a story to an interested party, by holding their immediate attention, developing a connection between character and audience, and allowing for a satisfying resolution. Predictably, the three-act structure has progressed past the secluded form of a single story into the expanded forum of the trilogy. Regrettably, the three-act structure now often displays itself to have become stagnate, or at least somewhat of a crutch, for dramatists. Meanwhile, the term trilogy has become somewhat of a clichéd Hollywood expression for “unnecessary bloated concept” that allows studios to create financial cash cows in the form of blockbuster action films. Of course, these failures and distortions are not actually the fault of the strategy or form, so much as the lack of distinct creativity on the part of the author.
I bring this topic up, not because Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Three Times is another grievous example of how the three-act structure or trilogy has sadly deteriorated, but to indicate that any artist — even a master such as Hou — is often constrained to the usual principles of narrative. Even though the majority of the film’s running time displays Hou to be in complete control of his chosen medium, Three Times falls victim to its chosen structure more than its filmmakers’ execution.
Three Times is a composite of three different tales, set in three different moments in Taiwanese history, which revolve around the interaction between three different characters in each timeframe. The same performers occupy the roles of the principle characters in each story, with each actor occupying a different identity in each time period. Hence, there is a sense of reincarnation of these identities throughout history, as their enduring relationships appear fated to converge throughout time. Though each segment primarily revolves around the love story of one specific couple, it is important to note that there are three lasting personalities involved in each, and the position of the women is significant in illustrating the period under Hou’s study. The female 3rd wheel begins the film as a precursor, is demoted to pupil, and finally ends as the tertiary member of a failed, rather scalene, love triangle. Meanwhile, in contrast, the lead female role begins as an enigmatic ideal worthy of pursuit, moves onto confined captive with a modest amount of value within an imprisoned culture, and ends as an equal, if not almost a rock star bestowed with worship in a media savvy society. The lead actress in this case, Shu Qi of Millennium Mambo fame, delivers an impressive mannered performance across all three chapters, expressing minute sentiments by the most subtle means.
Three Times begins its time travels by wandering around Taiwan in 1966 in the idyllic titled “A Time for Love,” in which Hou chronicles the encounters between Chen, a young man entrenched to military service, and May, a young woman drifting through various modest pool-halls in different towns. May starts to work at Chen’s favorite pool-hall, taking over duties from a woman Chen was once smitten with. May unexpectedly becomes privy to a personal letter that Chen had previously sent to May’s predecessor, and when he later arrives to resume his flirtation, he instead becomes drawn to May. From this point, both Chen and May anxiously circle around pool-tables, watching one another across smoky rooms with pensive expressions, as they await the next intimate, but fleeting, moment that results from their unspoken mutual attraction. As time passes, both Chen and May are forced to depart their dreamy haunt. Finally, Chen seeks to reunite with May traveling across Taiwan in a desperate search to find his elusive object of affection.
In its alluring demonstration of the early magnetic moments of love, Hou’s first segment is almost impossibly expressive and lyrical. It’s no accident he chooses to situate this initial story around the game of snooker, with its colorful spherical bodies continually colliding in gentle mannered movements and separating in quick hectic dashes into remote pockets and corners. Hou films these pool-hall meetings through a stationary position in a slightly obstructed corner, but allows us to glance at Chen and May as they shift and shuffle past one another through long fluid intimate takes. Quite often, we only observe the subtle expressions of a single character within a frame as they gaze longingly at their potential other, who is situated just off-screen. May and Chen barely speak to one another during their interaction and when they do their conversation is distracted by discussing snooker shot selection. However, rather than stiff silence, Hou sets an elegant tone and fills the hazy atmosphere with the delicate melodies of The Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and Aphrodite’s Child’s “Rain and Tears”, as well as dropping in a very nouvelle-vague-like reference to romantic Chinese pop. It is a carefully constructed scenario where a slight movement of the eyes or mouth takes on an immensely profound meaning, and both his leads are equal to the task. These wistful moments are frequently interrupted by concise shots of Chen crossing by boat to his next military assignment and later we are privy to extended displays of Chen’s travels across Taiwan to countless remote towns. Thus, a disparity is created between the motion of travel and the stillness of our couple’s meandering courtship. These tactics, especially the character’s glances off-screen towards possibilities just out of their grasp, convey a sense of substantial potential requiring our characters to overcome their timid tendencies towards the alteration of their surroundings.
Hou’s cinematic diary of Chen and May’s warm waltz is also acts an expression of the culture of the time. Through Hou’s camera, Taiwan appears to be on the brink of modern movements, standing on an understandably daunting border between a rich history and required progress. The nearly unbearable tension created in “A Time for Love” is due in part to Hou’s decision to situate his story within this cultural state of flux, simply because, like their homeland, his characters must also choose whether to remain comfortable in their secure script of occasional encounters and intermittent correspondence, or risk their unvarying positions to chase endless possibility of progress. Hou appears to understand the inherent conflict of these circumstances to such a great degree that it is not surprising that this opening segment is the most charismatic and engaging within his film.
Despite the title “A Time for Freedom,” Hou intensifies his stylistic rigor within his second episode. The intermediate arc is much more minimal than his opening stanza, but no less accomplished. Now situated in 1911, all three of the principle cast return, though this time as master, concubine, and the concubine’s apprentice. Furthermore, mass printing and political poetry have replaced communication through formal personal letters. Inspired by an elderly poet that he accompanies to political rallies, the master writes editorial articles attempting to sway mass opinions towards seeking sovereignty. He also kindly provides supplemental financial support in order to resolve stalled negotiations for a pupil to graduate to complete companion, despite his moral objections to the notion of concubines. Unfortunately, the master has been thus far unable to bring himself to provide freedom to his own dutiful concubine who has remained attentive and supportive of all his actions and has provided him comfort and safety throughout these troubled times. After we witness the lives of so many young women bartered and sold, the loyal mistress, facing a lifetime of servitude, finally addresses her master with her struggles. His resolute, yet distraught reaction to his own incapacity results in a final rush of sorrow from the concubine, though even this final consequence remains agonizingly restrained.
In a reflection of cinema of the time, Hou eliminates all the sound save for classical musical accompaniment, with dialogue delivered afterwards through inserted cards. Though the long fluid takes remain and often expand, the intimacy of the prior fragment has been slightly defused by the severely restrictive style. Indeed, all the action, including the spark of an entire political uprising, is confined to the lavish rooms and hallways of a single household. Within this silent story, both Hou’s rigid style and his characters maddening formality during their contact are contrasted to a country seeking its own independence. Thus by demonstrating private conflicts of citizens incapable of providing each other equality and liberty, Hou challenges the notion that nations are capable of independence without allowing their own members some form of personal autonomy.
The alarming noises of metropolitan freeways and the startling bustle of city streets provide an abrupt introduction to Hou final verse. We join our principle cast once more in present day Taiwan, only this time engaged in a disjointed love triangle. Apparently edited since it’s debut at Cannes, “A Time for Youth” situates itself in contemporary Taipei, with our cast now inhabiting the lives of a photographer, his rock musician girlfriend, and her own devoted female lover. We then witness these three residents attempt to traverse through their relationships, with the rock singer, Jing, being pulled between two possible companions.
Hou now freely creates his contemporary world without self-imposed restraints upon his style. Unfortunately, though Hou is liberated to use any method he requires, his premise somehow exhausts itself. Some of the irritation is indeed due to watching what we once perceived as an undying attraction between two destined lovers become challenged by a tertiary character who now is liberated to act as equal. However, this isn’t a serious source for our discontent given the eventual outcome of the conflict. Hou’s concept of modern Taipei is detached and dark, with most scenes submersed in either a harsh blue or intense white light. Though his characters are free to engage in any act of intimacy they choose, the resulting scenes remain distant and disconnecting. This is clearly the point of Hou final verse. Regardless of advancements in medicine, infrastructure, and communications, our characters bodies are breaking down under stress, they appear isolated in their cramped concrete compartments, and they remain disconnected to one another even as they contact one another through lightening quick techniques. The warmth and inspiration of poetry has been replaced by the coldness of e-mail, cell phones, and the internet. Even the music that once soothed and expressed sadness now feels like a pompous lecture or artificial sermon. In fact, what once served as rebellious inspiration now seems to exist in service of celebrity. Oddly, Hou allows for something more intimate as well, with closer shots of his actors being employed without any noteworthy understanding created. However, the aspect that is actually frustrating about Hou’s conclusion is not his execution, or the segment’s accuracy in capturing the current climate, but rather that the message is so stale. Though Hou astutely illustrates the paradoxical disconnection of our innovative times, what he seems to overlook is that the idea that we have become detached from one another is something that is already apparent. While the reprimand is not completely needless, and may still be required for some, it is a critique that feels fairly disappointing to witness after having experienced such reserved emotion and daunting rigor beforehand.
It has been noted since Cannes that Three Times is in some ways a retread, or re-working, of some of Hou’s most recent projects (Dust in the Wind, Flowers of Shanghai, and Millennium Mambo), and that his work in this instance should be viewed as a commentary upon his previous films. Whether or not that is the case is another topic to discuss, and one I’m incapable of undertaking given my inexperience with Hou’s initial films. However, what becomes clear after viewing Three Times is that Hou has stretched his premise a touch too far. Though he continues to display his mastery of the medium, in the end, his concluding verse slightly detracts from what is otherwise a splendid exercise in cinema, as well as the historic exploration of a fascinating culture.