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.