Sunday, March 26, 2006

Three Times

Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-Hsien's movie at The Picturehouse is a movie with three stories told very distinctly, one story after another. Take it as three short films rolled into one, with each actor playing different roles, each character having no distinct relation to their counterparts in different eras. Having them set in 1966, 1911 and 2005 provided vastly different material for each short film to stand out from one another.

The first, "A Time for Love", is set in the swinging 60s of 1966. Chang Chen plays an army enlistee who chances upon Shu Qi's working girl in a billiard parlour. He gets attracted to her, but she, not being a permanent staff, flits from one town to another. Undetered, he spends the weekend off to hunt for her, starting from KaoShiung where they last met, following a trail of different mailing addresses which takes him all over Taiwan. This short plays out like a bittersweet tale of budding love, where one will spare no effort in wanting to meet the girl of one's dreams.

The second, "A Time for Freedom", however, is a tough one to swallow. Set during 1911, there is colour, but alas, there's no audible dialogue save for opera lyrics sung and Chinese classical music to set the stage. It plays out as a silent movie of sorts, and the dialogue pieces are set in intertitles which you have to read off to understand what the heck they're saying. Very stylish way to portray the era, one which attracted some snickering from the audience, but soon after, you'll have to get very used to the way this section gets presented. The story however, is nothing to shout about, and perhaps the most boring of the lot. Very easy to doze off in the Oscar chair I tell you.

The last section, "A Time for Youth" is set in 2005. Chang Chen plays a photographer, and Shu Qi, a bisexual Goth chick who is on the road to becoming straight, I think. Her character here is the most interesting of the lot, and also because Chang Chen's male leads in all three parts were somewhat ordinary, without an edge. While the first part's environment was in Taiwan's rural areas, which is probably used as it's easier to simulate the retro environment of the past, and the second's highly likely in a soundstage, this one is familiar urban territory - capital Taipei. It probably is hip to feature lesbians in movies these days, as we see Shu Qi grapple with a clingy lesbian lover. But after having passionate throngs with Chang's character, I guess she must be having second thoughts, or really, is bothered by the clinginess.

Throughout the three sections, dialogue is quite scarce, except for perhaps the first one. Peppered most of the time in Hokkien, it was peculiar that the subtitles only had the Mandarin translation, totally neglecting English speaking folks. But for the Mandarin dialogue, there was English subtitles. So for those who don't read Mandarin or understand oral Taiwanese styled Hokkien, be prepared to be lost for a bit during the movie.

I didn't manage to tie down the inter-related themes of all 3 parts, except for the obvious one on love. The first, being in the 60s, was portrayed quite innocently, with shy smiles and little surprises and all. The second was more restrained in nature. Fact is, there's very little physical contact between the lovers. While the third opened with sex, which I suspect was snipped off here (didn't see what was in the trailers :P). All three had appropriate music to accentuate the era's mood. You have classics like Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and Rain and Tears (the one used in the trailer), up against Operatic music, before closing the film with alternative music, sung in heavily Chinese accented English, whose lyrics don't make much sense, being adapted by Shu Qi's character encounters. Communication techniques used in the three movies were as accurate as can be, with A4 sized pen-written love letters, in contrast with ink-brushed wordings in large thin paper, and today's prevalent electronic communication with email and SMS. Perhaps it also serves to highlight the idea of love in those eras. One very innocent, one very plain, and one, non-permanent and fleeting.

Maybe it's just me, but having watch three very arty representations by directors such as Malick, Ratanatuang and now Hou, made me a little jaded what with having movies where style takes precedence over substance. I think I need to chill out with something as mindless as Ice Age 2 or Ultraviolet soon. Need balance.

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