Conversations about film
August 18, 2020
Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 2005
Jim Wilson: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the fourth edition of Collokino. I’m thrilled to be joined this time by my fellow film enthusiast James Westbrook. You’re in Atlanta, right, James? Everything going okay over there?
James Westbrook: Hey, Jim. Atlanta’s good, we’re at the intersection of rainy and blisteringly hot that always hits at the end of August. I’ve had an unusually busy last couple weeks (by the standards of the Covid era, anyway) but it looks like I’ll be swimming in an ocean of free time again soon. How’s everything in Colorado?
Jim: Hot and dry. It’s fire season now, and there are lots of them burning up in the mountains. Down here on the plains the smoke can get so thick it obliterates the view of the mountains. Apropos, I guess, for the first musical number in the film we’re discussing.
So you chose Three Times to talk about, a unique film constructed on an anthology style of storytelling. It uses the same actors in different roles in three different stories, over three distinct time frames, 1911, 1966 and 2005. The three stories bind together several important periods in the modern history of Taiwan, the birthplace and frequent subject of the film’s director Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Hou is rarely explicit or expository about that history in the film, until he is, which we might get to. He tells the three tales as a series of interactions between the personal, the economic, and the political, further held together by common themes, about three separate romantic episodes. I’d like to arrange the discussion by consecutive summaries of each of these three “times”, followed by a general conversation about the film as a whole. As my guest, you picked the film, so could you give a quick summary of the film’s first triplet, set in 1966, and some general impressions?
James: Absolutely. Subtitled “A Time for Love”, the film’s first story is set in the city of Kaohsiung and follows Chen and May (Chang Chen and Shu Qi, who play the leads in all three of the film’s stories), a soldier and the young woman who comes to work at the pool hall he frequents. One day Chen goes to the hall attempting to track down May’s predecessor, a woman he had a crush on before he got deployed, and instead runs into May. One quietly enraptured game of pool later and Chen promises to write to May while he’s away. When he finally returns nearly a month later, he discovers she’s moved back home, and the rest of the story concerns his efforts to find her, sending him up and down the southern coast of Taiwan in the process, and the bliss of their reunion when it finally arrives.
I’m not gonna lie, “A Time for Love” may be the entire reason Three Times is so close to my heart. Hou Hsiao-Hsien is a director with a sixth sense for capturing the rhythms of day-to-day life without overloading them with directorial flourishes, peering beneath their bland facades to find the feelings and harmonies that simmer beneath even the smallest interaction, and “A Time for Love” is a masterfully captured slice of life, perfectly conveying both the tranquil rhythms of this more relaxed period in Taiwan’s history, and how those rhythms were perfectly conducive to young love. He perfectly portrays the awkward dance of infatuation, the way it can bloom out of something as simple as a game of pool and a couple melancholic love letters if the circumstances are right (a theme Hou emphasizes more clearly in the latter two segments, where the circumstances aren’t quite so perfect). The pool games themselves are a quiet marvel, the camera bouncing between the movement of the pool balls and its players as they tentatively flirt, smoke cigarettes, and feel one another out. The pool game also serves as a cheeky metaphor for the characters themselves: both Chen and May are always moving, both around the country of Taiwan and physically: they bike, pass on opposing passenger boats without realizing, take late night buses to see one another, and circle one another in the pool hall, bouncing off each other like the pool balls themselves until the circumstances finally align in their favor. That final beat, when the two slowly hold hands while waiting for the bus, may be one of my favorite cinematic moments, a perfect period on Chen and May’s clumsily cute puppy love.
I know this was your first time watching Three Times: How did “A Time for Love” work for you? What stuck out to you as you were watching?
Also, I’m glad you mentioned “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” above: music is incredibly important in Three Times, the different soundtracks of the three parts reflecting the state of Taiwan in each period and the circumstances of each pair of lovers. Did you find Hou’s use of the era’s pop music effective in communicating the emotional undercurrent of Chen and May’s burgeoning relationship?
Jim: I agree that the 1966 episode is the film’s aesthetic highlight, no question, a beautifully nuanced probing of the little ways that two young people, both timidly and powerfully attracted to each other, express those feelings. May, for example, is obviously very smitten with Chan, which she expresses outwardly with big smiles, nervous laughter, and girlish gestures of affection. Chan is more reticent to express his feelings, but his complete focus on her presence is all he needs to say. Verbally, they say almost nothing to each other, which is part of the entire film’s most central theme, regarding communication. Written communication, through that quaint means of letter writing, is not only how they express themselves to each other with language most vividly, but also serves Chan as a way to discover where she’s gone, by way of a return address, after leaving her various pool hall jobs. You asked about music, which emerges directly out of these letters. Chan refers to two songs in his letters, after which the songs play in the non-diegetic soundtrack. It’s a clever way of introducing music from the narrative plane of the story, something Hou continues to do with fascinating results in the latter episodes of the film.
I do want to add how much I love Hou’s distant camera positions, often with other people passing in between and partly obscuring Chan and May. It works wonderfully to emphasize how their body language is their loudest and most effective way of communicating with each other, providing them with the space to bounce back and forth off each other, like the metaphorical pool balls you mentioned.
1966 was a very important time in the history of Taiwan, which I’m sure we’ll get to later, as was 1911, when the second of the film’s three episodes takes place, this one called “A Time for Freedom”. Here, the events take place entirely inside of a brothel in the town of Dadaocheng, where Shu Qi plays a singing courtesan to her frequent client Mr. Chang, played by Chang Chen. Mr. Chang is a diplomatic partisan working to free Taiwan from Japanese control, but while he’s in the milieu of the brothel, he becomes involved in a transaction between the brothel’s madame and another client, who seeks to purchase another of the prostitutes as a concubine, after getting her pregnant. The political and economic realities of “A Time for Freedom” are heavy with the interplay between freedom and bondage, of a country and a culture on the threshold of the modern world. Tell me about how these dynamics are captured by Hou stylistically, technically, and in the way the two protagonists relate to one another, and if it works for you, or not, and why.
James: The most obvious difference between “A Time for Freedom” and “A Time for Love” is that “A Time for Freedom” is mostly silent, the characters’ dialogue expressed via title cards. This serves two purposes: One, it locates us in the time period through that period’s own aesthetics, and two, it accentuates the communication gap between these two characters. Politics do affect the characters of “A Time for Love” (as they affect us all), but they don’t consume their thoughts. By contrast, they swamp them in “A Time for Freedom”, strangling their relationship before it can fully bloom. Mr. Chang’s work is often the only thing on his mind; at one point he cites a short poem by his mentor that goes “Our homeland is torn asunder, our brotherly bond is ever tighter” implying his strongest connection is to his mentor and their fatherland, and in his final letter to the Courtesan (an echo of the many letters from the first part), he doesn’t even mention his feelings for her, keeping the focus entirely on his work and what it could accomplish.
I’m glad you brought up Hou’s use of a distant camera in “A Time for Love”, as he uses a similar technique to noticeably different ends in “A Time for Freedom”. His camera still drifts between the characters, but they move past it far less and aren’t often in the frame together. When they are, what they’re doing is more domestic than flirtatious: washing their faces, brushing their hair, putting their clothes back on. Their relationship is both transactional and stiffly polite, both playing out roles they’ve long since grown accustomed to. Their love is constrained by both their time period’s expectations, which would frown on a man like Mr. Chang marrying a courtesan, and Mr. Chang’s obsession with his work. I also found it interesting that where “A Time for Love” largely takes place either outside or in spaces with large, open doors (the pool hall), “A Time for Freedom” is constrained to small, cramped rooms, and I don’t believe there was a single exterior shot in the entire segment.
I do think it largely works, although it definitely didn’t light my inner fire the way “A Time for Love” does. I believe that’s intentional, though, as in the end, neither character’s fire gets lit either; their relationship remains a smoldering coal that never bursts into a proper flame, and this is as frustrating for us as it is for them (the courtesan especially, as she has few alternatives to the brothel). It’s much more focused on all the things that can get between two people than on the threads that bind them together, and explicitly ties that to social upheaval and the fickle currents of history.
I barely touched on much of the plot here, including the other woman who’s sold as a concubine and the child who replaces her, even though that through-line provides much of the segment’s action. How do you think that plot thread ties into “A Time for Freedom”‘s overall themes about social upheaval and its ripple effects, and did this section work for you, or was its focus on constrained emotions a little, well, constraining?
Jim: Oh, I think that plot thread is everything here. I think that’s right, that Mr. Chang’s political efforts consume all of his passions, precluding any real chance at romantic love. But I also think that Hou is making a point about that huge juncture, that breaking point between ideals around brotherly love, country and blood – the nationalist fervor that burned hot across the planet at that time (like my nearby wildfires) – and still dormant ideals around social justice and equality. Mr. Chang channels all his love into liberating Taiwan, while contributing greatly to the continued bondage of women and the working class. There is often a deeply seated element of class and racial bigotry among the very men who argue, and have argued the loudest for political and economic liberation, a basic hypocrisy in humans that seems unshakeable. As for communication, there’s almost none, just facts related, transactions tendered, and Mr.Chang’s dull self-absorbency. Whether with words or letters, nothing is expressed between them. The body language between the two, though, is fascinating, as she often sits in a neutral position, but turns in his direction when he speaks. When she speaks, she often turns away from him, as if not to offend him with her forthrightness.
I love how some of the music, the vocal numbers, emerge non-diegetic, then become diegetic. It’s a bewitching effect. I generally really like “A Time for Freedom”. The silent movie treatment with the cards annoys me, to be honest. I don’t think it contributes much, since they hardly say anything anyway. I did read something that there was a problem with vocal delivery, which was remedied by making it silent, but I have no clue if that’s true. With each successive watch, it’s the episode that expands for me the most. It’s the most formal segment, and I like watching for all those little devices and tells in a constricted environment so buttoned down it’s bursting, oh so prudently, at the seams. This is the one time when title cards announce an historical fact, the date of the Wuchang Uprising, on October 10, 1911, which led directly to the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty in China. Though I want to hold fire on historical context, it’s interesting to me that Hou chose that as the one historical episode to explicitly note.
The film then jumps pretty dramatically to 2005 and a motorcycle thundering down a Taipei highway, Shu Qi and Chang Chen again, beneath illustrated black crash helmets. Wanna take it from here and sketch out this busy last bit of the story?
James: Certainly. In “A Time for Youth”, the film’s final segment, Jing (Shu Qi) and Zhen (Chang Chen) meet one night at a club where Jing is performing when Zhen comes on stage, unprompted, to photograph her. They begin an affair, hooking up at Zhen’s apartment, his hallway walls lined with photographs, fluorescent light bulbs, and useless ephemera like an underground art gallery few get to visit. We learn details about their lives in staccato fragments: Jing is epileptic, lives with her girlfriend, and writes music long into the night. Zhen has a girlfriend he barely sees and spends most of his time surfing the internet. At one point he finds an online profile of Jing on a dating website that reads “A yen sign branded on my throat. Name your price. I want to sell my soul. No past, no future. Just a greedy present.” Jing’s girlfriend comes to suspect Jing is having an affair, but even after multiple confrontations Jing is nonplussed. Even as it becomes more and more obvious their affair may lead to a tragic ending, Jing and Zhen continue apace, drifting through their lives in a numb haze.
“A Time for Youth” may be Three Times’ boldest segment. It’s definitely its most alienating, remixing many of the motifs of the first two segments into an Antonioni-esque portrait of modern existential despair. Up until the film’s final moments, the music is almost entirely diegetic, and much of it is performed by Jing, sung in a smoky alto in the only clear display of emotion either protagonist is granted. They communicate largely by text, a sort of diegetic title card of its own, and Jing’s girlfriend’s final message to her, a despairing suicide note, is written out on her computer, a wail of misery delivered through a coldly inhuman medium (and Jing responds to it as if it isn’t happening to her at all, but is rather an anonymous message: she reads the note and then lies down in her bed listlessly).
It’s also the film’s most idiosyncratic segment aesthetically, using far more close-ups and even some handheld to really place us in the moment. Not that “A Time for Youth” is a work of realism: the shadows are heavy, sometimes even chiaroscuro-esque, and the teal-and-yellow color scheme that carries through all three parts is at its most accentuated here. If “A Time for Love” leaned into the bluer end of the spectrum, in keeping with its emphasis on free movement through outdoor spaces, and “A Time for Freedom” accentuated the yellows as part of its own emphasis on the claustrophobic, cloistered rooms of the brothel, then “A Time for Youth” mixes and matches the two colors freely, both colors often coming from different artificial sources. One particularly striking moment: during one of Jing’s late night music sessions the frame is almost completely burnt-yellow, the glow of Jing’s lamp dominating the space, until she pushes one of the curtains aside and it’s revealed to have been daytime out all along. Same, too, with much of the teal coming from fluorescent lights, like the bulb in Zhen’s hallway, the overhead light in the internet cafe he frequents, and those outside his apartment at night. The use of color is almost completely divorced from a natural context and doesn’t clearly delineate indoor/outdoor spaces, as it does in the first two segments. Instead, it’s more moody and cerebral, much like “A Time for Youth” itself.
But I digress. Care to elaborate on the use of body language in this segment, and what stuck out to you in this nightmare of urban living?
Also, I think we’re about to hit the point where we can tie all of these together (I arguably already started with that paragraph on color), so I’ll go ahead and get the ball rolling: how did Three Times work for you as one piece? Did you find the contrast of the three segments thrilling or obnoxious, and why do you think Hou chose to group these three segments together like this?
Jim: I guess I see “A Time for Youth” less as a nightmare of urban living, and more a nightmare of commercialism and information technology contributing to further alienation. And maybe not even a nightmare, per se, but the reality of the times. There’s a great piece of graphic art on the wall of someone’s apartment, I think Zhen’s, of the head of a zebra, it’s stripes gradually morphing into a barcode, which is repeated by a large barcode illustration on the side of Zhen’s crash helmet. The commodification of living beings is the clear message, amplified by the Yen sign tattooed on Jing’s throat, which also works as a reference back to Taiwan’s history under Japanese control, and capitalist triumphalism.
Good eye on the color scheme. Oftentimes, I fail to notice that detail in films. As a cameraman yourself, though, your eye is well trained.
There are lots of things I can say about “A Time for Youth”, but maybe it’s best to fold them into some remarks about the film as a whole. It is not my favorite part of the film, since it feels bloated and fragmentary, too many half-formed elements crammed into forty-five minutes, though that does work to contribute to the overall atmosphere of urban and technological excess.
The relationships between the various characters, for example, is sketchily drawn and more than a little confusing at times. Even after multiple viewings, I still have trouble figuring out Zhen’s earlier girlfriend, and what role she is playing (though that is mirrored in “A Time for Love,” with Chen’s initial interest in the pool hall girl that precedes May, both, I think, played by the same actress).
Reflecting on that more, I’m nearly convinced there’s something there about the transient nature of romantic love, that the current love story is always emerging out of a previous one, and already fading into the next, challenging the idea of “the one”.
Physical intimacy, both explicit and implicit, is one of my favorite parts of “A Time for Youth,” and one of the outstanding themes running through all three episodes. In “Youth” there’s plenty of it. It’s a socially liberated era, so sexual expression is commonplace, and it’s acceptable to be openly gay, or in Jing’s case bisexual. Both protagonists have two lovers. Contrast that especially with 1911, when physical intimacy is not only never seen, but never even mentioned, despite the glaring fact that it takes place in a brothel. I don’t know if that’s an accurate depiction of Taiwanese socials mores at the time (I can’t help thinking of Bertrand Bonello’s House of Tolerance and its Paris brothel in 1900, where sex, nudity and physical contact are on constant display). Bring in the 1966 of “A Time for Love” and the picture gets more complex, where an overpowering sense of youthful freedom, to intermingle and travel, nevertheless diverges from the timidity and modesty May and Chen seem bound to observe, perhaps by the conventions of the time. Again, my poor understanding of Taiwanese customs prevents me from entirely understanding much of the social context in the film. But it is a satisfying chronological arc, from the rigid denial and repression of “A Time for Freedom” to the quiet yearning and innocence in “A Time for Love” to the uninhibited sensuality of “A Time for Youth.”
To your question about why these three segments are assembled as they are, I really can only guess. Undoubtedly, Hou’s heart is the most invested in the first episode, “A Time for Love”, as that is the closest to autobiographical for him. He was the same age as Chen at the time. Since it was a time of considerable freedom and opportunity in Taiwan (while a darker time in mainland China, with the beginning of the Cultural Revolution), it’s the most optimistic of the three eras, so a good one to start with, making the contrast with the second episode in 1911 all the harsher, which was a fairly bleak time in Taiwan (while brighter in mainland China, with the fall of the Qing Dynasty). Transitioning from 1911 to 2005 is jolting, with the country entirely transformed. The significance of 2005 is less clear to me, though it was a time of expanding political representation, with the first non-KMT-led government, though that expansion seemed to sow as much uncertainty as anything, which is, actually, one useful way of observing “A Time for Youth,” as a time of increasing uncertainty, no matter how liberating, in turn an accurate description of youth itself.
But let’s fill things out more with your astute observations. What binds the three stories together for you, and what themes or messages or points on film-craft do you take away from it?
James: You’re too kind, good sir. I must say, before getting into my half of the wrap up, this conversational format is an elucidating way to look at a movie, especially a knottier one like this. Definitely a lot of details I didn’t fully notice or connect until we started this deep dive.
Anyway, back to Three Times: while I think the historical elements are definitely important (and I confess to knowing about as much about Taiwanese history as you do), I think it all comes back to the effect the three time periods themselves have on the protagonists of each story, and my theory for why the three tales have been grouped like this is that it shows us how much we’re all at the whims of the social milieu we live in, and thus how fragile and special love really is. Same as Hou challenges the idea of “the one” in regards to true love (great observation, by the way), he also challenges the idea of true individuality, positing that the forces acting on us are just as important in shaping the course of our lives as what we ourselves choose to do. It’s not just about meeting someone you really connect with, it’s about doing so during a time and at a place that will allow that love to flourish. I think your observations about physical intimacy are astute, because I think “A Time for Youth” shows that, by Hou’s estimation, purely open sexuality isn’t a total salve for repression, as Zhen and Jing are arguably just as emotionally repressed as Mr. Chang and the courtesan are, though the couples are operating on opposite ends of sexual freedom. May and Chen, on the other hand, are smack-dab in the center of the repression-index, and they end up being the ones who are arguably the most “free”, emotionally speaking. He looks at two important time periods from the past and sees one which stifles and one which frees, then sees that same stifling happening in the present through different means. It’s a pessimistic vision, especially choosing to end on it, but one could argue that Hou believes a time like 1966 will come again, as if Three Times shows us anything, it’s that history ebbs and flows in surprising ways.
Related to that idea, I think it also expresses the importance of living in the present and not getting too dragged down by what’s happening around oneself, even if those forces inevitably do have an effect on us. Sometimes all it takes to find “true love” is being open to the right lazy game of pool, even if it doesn’t fit our preconceived plans. To that end, I’d like to quote Chen’s first love letter from “A Time to Love”: “I have no idea what the future holds. I just want to thank you. The days I have spent around [the pool hall] have been the happiest of all”. Arguably, one of Zhen and Jing’s greatest sins, Zhen especially, is how obsessively they document everything they do through their photos and music. If they let go of the need to constantly reassess their lives aesthetically and embraced wistful boredom perhaps they, too, would find a deeper connection with someone else.
Of course, maybe bundling these three stories just gave Hou a great excuse to expand his formal palette and experiment with different textures, ideas, and filmmaking techniques (and to that end, I’ll quickly make note of the different scene transitions in each part: In “A Time for Love”, scenes flow into one other organically, whereas in “A Time for Freedom” it fades to black in between scenes, putting a harsh period on each, and in “A Time for Youth”, the scenes are, as you mentioned above, somewhat scrambled, cutting off at ellipses that are often disorienting; at one point, I wondered whether or not the segment was taking place non-chronologically). Three Times is a fascinating movie in a lot of ways, but it works best for me as a mood piece that scrambles its own mood multiple times throughout. It’s exactly the kind of audacious filmmaking exercise I’m prone to love (hence why I picked it!).
I think that’s just about all I’ve got. Anything else we haven’t discussed you’d like to touch on?
Jim: It’s a fun film to talk about. There’s so much to sift through and examine.
Though I did tick them off, I’d like to revisit the theme that’s central for me, namely all the ways Shu’s and Chang’s characters communicate with each other, what changes and what stays the same between episodes, and how those means of communicating shape the characters and their relations with one another. In 1966, May and Chen communicate almost entirely through writing and body language, meaning slowly, thoughtfully and intimately. They both seem like good, honest young people, learning their ways in the world. But as you point out, the times define them as well, so maybe of the three time periods in the film, 1966 is the most intimate and thoughtful.
In 1911, the courtesan and Mr. Chang don’t communicate much at all, other than factual information. Even when they do speak, we can’t hear them, and like I said before, I’m not convinced that device really works. The two speak mostly in body language, which, in their case, has to do with who’s facing who or sideways or away, a kind of code for deciphering the repressions and restrictions of the time. Neither the courtesan nor Mr. Chang seem like bad people, but it’s hard to see deeply into either one of them. They don’t communicate anything. And though I may not know a great deal about Taiwan’s history, I’m a big fan of that early modern era around the world, and know how not listening, either from laziness or contempt, led to many disasters.
In 2005, Jing and Zhen and their friends communicate in 21st century ways, behind screens, with phone, text, email, internet, and other kinds of visual imagery, like Zhen’s photos . But the expansion of communicating with all of these new methods dilutes and clouds what most wants to be said. And I honestly do think that has a lot to do with their obsessive fixation on all of it, because they never get it all, it’s too scrambled, too much, and never enough. Music, too, I should add, is another form of communication across all the stories, and in 2005 we get to see it all the way from composition to performance, but what really struck me in listening to Jing’s lyrics is how completely aspirational they are. What she champions in her lyrics, a greater connection with the self, she certainly hasn’t achieved. How much of art is just wishful thinking? I do have to say, I really dig Jing’s dark and hypnotic ambient style of music.
I could go on a bit about transactional love, meaning people’s affections being bought, particularly in 1911 and 2005, but I suppose we’ve both touched on it enough already.
This was really fun, James. Thanks for bringing this film to my attention. It has taught me a lot, no bullshit. I can blame Michael Clawson for getting me into Hou in the first place, and now you’ve just made it worse. So, unless you’ve got an “Oh yeah, I forgot” to add, take care, and I look forward to doing this with you again soon.
James: Nope, no additional thoughts here, but I’m pleased I helped cement your Hou Hsiao-Hsien fandom, and that I got the chance to dive into this old favorite of mine with you. Thanks for having me, Jim. Till next time.