A sampler of novella-length films set in three different time periods and starring the same two actors, Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times resembles one of those delicate trios served at fine restaurants, each a fresh interpretation of a common ingredient. And there's no question that they look good on the plate: Working again with first-rate cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin (In The Mood For Love), Hou recreates each world with scrupulous detail, from the caged-bird chambers of a courtesan in 1911 to the smoky provincial pool-halls of the '60s to the grinding pulse of contemporary nightclubs. But how do they taste? As with Hou's other work, form and texture are generally more important than anything approaching conventional melodrama; feelings are evoked rather than expressed, and the heavy atmosphere bears down on the characters and audience alike. For the uninitiated, Three Times presents an ideal primer, a condensed K-Tel collection of themes that have consistently reappeared throughout his career.
Of the three, only the first, "A Time For Love," achieves real transcendence, synthesizing Hou's deep nostalgia for his '60s youth with a dreamy pop romanticism that could be mistaken for Wong Kar-Wai's work. And as with many of Wong's films, gorgeous musical ballads do much of the talking, specifically The Platters' "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" and Aphrodite's Child's "Rain And Tears," which are love songs that can bridge distances. In fact, the largely unspoken connection between pool-hall girl Shu Qi and the handsome Chang Chen just seems to grow when he's sent off to military service and writes her affectionate letters from afar. During a short leave, he seeks her out again, but upon discovering that she's left for another town, Chang follows the scent, leading to a reunion sequence that's crystalline and sweet, a small slice of perfection.
After the strong start comes the inevitable anticlimax, though the last two segments have merit; they just lack distinction. Recasting Hou's beautiful Flowers Of Shanghai as a silent chamber piece, "A Time For Freedom" recycles the suffocating hothouse milieu of a high-priced, turn-of-the-century brothel. Outside its walls, the Japanese occupy Taiwan, but inside, a sad-faced courtesan (Shu) caters to the needs of a well-heeled client (Chang). Though accomplished as a formal experiment, the short plays to Hou's weakness for making a repressed atmosphere instead seem arid and lifeless, a problem compounded by a tinkling piano phrase that keeps repeating. Though the last short, "A Time For Youth," breaks out into the open spaces of contemporary Taipei–the opening shot of Shu and Chang zipping through the streets on motorbikes seems especially liberating–it again finds Hou spinning his wheels, offering a more concise and less affecting variation on his 2001 film Millennium Mambo. While the third pairing of Shu and Chang (this time as an epileptic singer and a photographer, respectively) gives Three Times a sense of continuity, Hou's rumination on alienated modern youth is a little too expected in light of his previous work. He moved in a new direction with the opening segment; it's a shame to see him stepping back to the familiar.