Toronto Film Festival--"Three Times"
Hou Hsiao-Hsien, from Taiwan, is probably my favorite living filmmaker, and so his new one, Three Times, was unsurprisingly the movie that affected me most in Toronto.
Three Times contains three stories. In the first, set in 1966, young men and women languidly while away their days in pool halls, sipping beer while pop tunes waft in the air. In the second, set in 1911, personal and political dilemmas intersect in a brothel. The final segment (and the darkest) is set in teeming present-day Taipei among young bohemians, experimenting with sex and drugs, and adrift in transitory relationships.
I've seen it just once, but a few things fascinate me right away about this film:
The same actress and actor (Shu Qi and Chang Chen) play lovers in all three stories — it’s almost like they are “reincarnating” their roles over a span of a hundred years. (What a cool idea.)
In an interview, Shu Qi even made a quick reference to the Chinese belief of reincarnation: in each successive life, we are intended to “correct” the problems and difficulties of previous lives. Only, the opposite seems to be happening in this film — our lives seem more aimless and fragmented now than they were forty years ago.
The original Chinese title of the film is Best Of Times. Hou, like a popular musician, is drawing from his “discography” of films for these three stories. The first reminds me in look and mood of A Time To Live And A Time To Die or Dust In The Wind; the second is set in a brothel like Flowers Of Shanghai; and the third clearly recalls the modern neon-smeared interior spaces of Millennium Mambo. So, Hou has created a sort of compilation album, only he has “remade” the ideas and memories behind his previous films into new stories.
I have previously mentioned my interest in improvisation, so it’s delightful to discover that Hou had no real script for the film, simply a few notes that were given to the actors, who weren’t told exactly where to stand, sit or move about (no blocking), and didn’t know when the camera was rolling and when it wasn’t.
Shu Qi likened Hou to a professor. He would assign books, music and other materials for his actors to immerse in as they were developing their characters. She said (only half-jokingly) that he gave them “pop quizzes” during shooting.
Here’s how the film opens, in utterly intoxicating fashion: men and women gracefully and wordlessly play pool, in a luxuriatingly extended scene, to the strains of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”. It’s one of those rare times I wished I could simply, quietly, slide out of my life and into the film, and live there forever.
I have always believed that cinema is conceived (especially by the truly great moviemakers) to be more “subjective” (and less literalist) than we realize or give it credit for. That opening scene I mentioned? Though it features the two lead characters (obviously in love), Hou has said that the scene bears no relation to anything else that follows. It’s not a flashback or a flash-forward — and it has absolutely nothing to do with the story. It’s simply there. And somehow, that’s reason enough for me.