Three Times (Taiwan, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

I'm as open to cinematic experimentation as the next person, but I often find that "offbeat" movies come across as more successful in concept than execution. So it goes with Three Times, a feature that arrived at last year's 2005 Toronto Film Festival riding the crest of a wave of positive critical buzz. And, while it's impossible to deny that the film is interesting and unique, it's not the kind of motion picture that will cause the average viewer to run out and urge his friends to make a trip to one of the obscure art houses where it's playing.

Three Times comes from the mind of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien. Comprised of a trio of 45-minute shorts starring the same male and female leads (Shu Qi, Chang Chien), the mini-films look at romance in three different time periods: 1911, 1966, and 2005. The first segment, which transpires in 1966, has the leads meet in a pool hall then correspond by mail once he joins the army. When he's home on leave, he tracks her down so they can spend time together. The 1911 episode is a drama between a master and his favorite concubine. He has promised her freedom, but she is so important to him that he cannot bear to let her go. Finally, in 2005, the female character is an epileptic singer involved with another woman as well as the man. Eventually, she turns her back on the lesbian, but there is a price to pay. (It's important to note that although the same actors are used in each time period, the characters they play are not related.)

Three Times features minimal dialogue. It is mostly about mood and images, and it moves at a glacial pace. Hou is in no hurry to speed things along. He frequently holds shots, lingering for longer than a conventional director might. A side order of a caffeinated beverage is recommended. The middle segment is an homage to the silent era. Although in color, this part is designed like a pre-talkie movie, complete with intertitles. I don't claim to have enjoyed Three Times in a traditional sense. I appreciated its artistry and admired its intentions, but I found the characters to be unpleasantly cold, and the filmmaker's style to be distancing. This is the kind of film that would have benefited from the forging of an emotional bond between the audience and the protagonists. Still, if you have the chance and appreciate movies that stray from the straight-and-narrow, you could find a worse way to spend 2 1/4 hours.

Three Times (Taiwan, 2005)

Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien
Cast: Chang Chen, Shu Qi
Screenplay: Hou Hsiao-hsien, Chu T'ien-wen
Cinematography: Lee Pin Bing
U.S. Distributor: IFC Films
Run Time: 2:19
U.S. Release Date: 2006-04-28
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Mandarin Chinese
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1