Thursday, May 14, 2009

Three Times-I've discovered a new genius!!

You very likely have never heard of Hou Hsiao-Hsien (pronounced, from what I'm told, Ho Shao-Shen). He is a director from Taiwan who since his debut in 1980 has been one of the leading filmmakers of world cinema. He has had 6 movies nominated for the Palme d'Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. And in an international poll conducted by The Village Voice was voted "Director of the Decade" of the 1990's. So why haven't you heard of him? Well, Roger Ebert has said "The movie distribution system of North America is devoted to maintaining a wall between you and Hou Hsiao-Hsien." For some unknown reason Hou's films haven't been widely distributed in the US. His 2005 masterpiece Three Times is only his second to receive theatrical distribution here, and even then it never played on more than 5 screens at once (your average Hollywood blockbuster generally releases on 3,000 to 4,000 screens). Three Times is a study of love in three different ways, telling three different stories (each about 40 minutes long), in three different time periods, using the same two actors. And it has some of the greatest filmmaking I've ever seen.

Each section has its own title, the first being "A Time for Love", set in 1966. Chen (Chen Chang) is hanging out at the local pool hall, about to leave for his stint in the army when he meets May (Qi Shu), the new girl working at the joint. They play pool late into the night, and he tells her he will write while he's away. When he gets a bit of leave and shows up at the pool hall again, he finds that May doesn't work there anymore, so he sets out to find her. Acclaimed American director Jim Jarmusch has said "The first section, just on its own, is one of the most perfect pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen." That's hefty praise, but I couldn't agree more. At heart I'm a hopeless romantic, and no other romance movie has ever connected with my heart like this one did. Never has the sight of two people holding hands filled me with such joy as I felt watching this. There were a few times I said to myself "If he ends it here, this section is perfect." Instead, he ended it somewhere else, and it was perfect.

The second and third sections aren't as successful as the first, but both focus more on communication between a couple. The second section is set in 1911, a more repressed time that keeps the lovers apart (or he may outright reject her, I couldn't decide). It's an achingly gorgeous piece of cinema, with a tremendous score, but strangely made. Hou filmed it like a silent movie, with title cards for dialog and everything, but I'm not quite sure the reasoning. It could be to shine a light on the body language of the actors by forcing his audience to not focus on the words, I didn't realize until later that they never declare their feelings for one another. She, at least, obviously loves him, but doesn't let him see it. The third, and least successful, section shows us a modern day romance much the opposite of the second section. These two barely spend any time at all with each other (they're always together in the second section), and instead of the long felt under current of emotions, we get angry phone calls and text messages, a generation brought up on instant gratification. I think the last section works better in theory than it does as drama, but it's still an important part of the movie.

I don't want to forget the terrific performance(s) by Chen Chang, but I have to talk about Qi Shu. The picture above isn't from the movie, but I wanted to give you an idea of what kind of beauty she is. Last year she was named by the E! network as the actress with the world's sexiest lips. She also, particularly in the first section of the movie, has a smile that lit me up inside. She started out in softcore porn and nude modeling in the mid-90's, but built herself into a respected actress. She became very in demand, and in 1999 was cast (opposite her future Three Times co-star Chen Chang) in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. However, her manager pulled her out of the project 6 weeks into filming so that she could do a soft drink commercial in Japan. Her part was recast with Ziyi Zhang, who was launched into international stardom because of the movie. Naturally, Qi fired the manager based on that decision. She caught the eye of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, who has cast her in two of his movies. I haven't seen their other collaboration Millenium Mambo yet, actually I haven't seen anything else at all by Hou, but I can't rave enough about Three Times and her incredible performance(s) in it.

10 comments:

Jump_Raven said...

Kyle, if you haven't already, you should see Hou Hsiao-Hsein's film City Of Sadness, it's fantastic. Notice his roots in Neorealism.

Kyle said...

I haven't seen it yet, but I just ordered a set of 8 of his movies, and I'm pretty sure City of Sadness was one of them. I'll definitely be writing more about him in the future. I'm excited to check out more of his stuff.

Jump_Raven said...

Hopefully. Be sure to write about them or at least drop me a line about them because like you I love his films. Also, I have been exploring Chinese-language films since my roommate is from China and is trying to convince me that all Chinese people want special effects and that anything not made within 10 years is ancient. I know he is full of something.

Kyle said...

I don't know much about Chinese cinema, so the only recommendation I can give is to check out any Zhang Yimou that you can, if you haven't already. I've been meaning to re-watch his Raise the Red Lantern for a long time. He's such a visual master that even if you're not engaged with the story, at least the movie always looks great.

Jump_Raven said...

I've seen 4 of his films:

House Of Flying Daggers
Hero
Raise The Red Latern
Red Sorghum

I really enjoyed Raise The Red Latern, it was as you say visually stunning.

I need to get a proper book on Chinese cinema. The one I have is more concerned with pushing the adoption of transnational cinematic studies than telling us about the movies.

Jump_Raven said...

Kyle, I finished watching Three Times tonight and I agree with you completely. The first section is near perfect, then it goes downhill till you end up with a piece of modernist trash with the third section. The film is a poor example of a great filmmakers work. Still you can pick out his signature, the long take. You'll notice it most in City Of Sadness.

Kyle said...

I wouldn't call it "trash", because I think it conveys a certain type of love that does exist in our world today. That's why I think it works. But that's also why I said I think it works more in theory, because it certainly wasn't great drama.

I actually got my boxset in the mail this week. No City of Sadness. I watched Dust in the Wind last night though. I think I'm gonna wait until I watch all (or at least half) of the movies in the set before I write about them. I think I'll just do a piece about his work as a whole. I did like Dust in the Wind just not as much as Three Times.

Jump_Raven said...

You must see City Of Sadness, even if you have to download it. I also recommend the other film of his on the top 1000: A Time To Live And A Time To Die.

Kyle said...

The box set I got, which you can buy on Amazon.com, has The Boys from Fengkuei, Summer at Grandpa's, A Time to Live and a Time to Die, Dust in the Wind, The Puppetmaster, Good Men, Good Women, Goodbye South, Goodbye, and Flowers of Shanghai. No special features, but 8 movies on 4 discs for about 50 bucks. I know you're a college student, likely with no money to spare, but that's where I got it.

Jump_Raven said...

I spotted that box set and wasn't sure whether it had English subtitles or not. Thanks for confirming that it does. I still probably won't get it because I can get most of them through Netflix.