In Three Times, austere Chinese auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien takes two actors, Shu Qui and Chang Chen, and posits them into three different love stories. The first, "A Time for Love," is set in 1966, against the background of a variety of pool halls, in which a soldier (Chang) meets a young hostess (Shu), subsequently loses track of her, and diligently searches for her throughout the provinces before they are briefly reunited. The second, "A Time for Freedom," takes place in a brothel in 1911 during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, and features Chang as a wealthy patron involved with a courtesan. The third and least rewarding, "A Time for Youth," is set in modern Taipei, with Shu playing a bisexual epileptic who ignores her girlfriend when she meets a fascinated photographer (Chang).
This is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful films of the year. However, depending on your aesthetic predilections, it may also be one of the most boring. Hou Hsiao-hsien is a visual master, let there be no doubt, but his films always tend to be more steeped in evocative atmosphere than action. The camerawork of genius cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin is alive to the thrilling beauty apprehended in light reflecting into a simple pool hall, an ornately expensive brothel, lush with dark suggestiveness, or even the red taillights of cars making slow progress through traffic. If you are easily lulled into a sensuous rhythm of pure cinematic languor, this will satisfy. If not, you may be banging your head against the back of your seat.
Hou's disdain for dialogue is evident from the first episode, in which no one speaks for an eternity, and is at its most pronounced in the second, wherein he actually revives silent-movie titles to take the place of real speech. The nonverbal theme is carried into the final segment, which has its alienated characters forever texting each other on their cell-phones. Under these thinly plotted, unspoken circumstances, both lead actors do remarkably well, evince impressive histrionic range, and emerge as a charismatic, quite stunning couple to rival those of movie legend: Garbo and Gilbert, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung in In the Mood for Love.