Three Times

Hou Hsiao Hsien's three-part movie, “Three Times,” is rich in style and form, but only intermittently involving and emotionally touching. The three love stories, played in each segment by Shu Qi and Chang Chen, two of Asia's most appealing actors, do not follow any order, chronological or otherwise.

The movie begins in 1966, with “The Times for Love,” in which a young man named Chen falls in love with May during a billiard game. When he goes away to serve in the army, he begins to correspond with her; Chen narrates his simple, dry letters in voice-over. Upon his return, Chen discovers that May has disappeared, and he sets off looking for her.

The story then goes back to 1911 and “The Times of Liberty,” in which a wealthy property owner intervenes on behalf of a young girl working in a brothel. His concubine asks him to do the same for her. He leaves for Japan, but keeps in touch with both the concubine and girl. The longest tale (over an hour), “Times for Liberty” is silent cinema at its best, with dialogue replaced by cue cards, just like in the good old days.

Set in 2005, “The Times for Youth,” the last segment, relates the story of four youngsters from Taipei who are going through very troubled relationships. They communicate with each other through text messages and wild sex.

Reflecting the impersonal, technological nature of modern times, this installment, the shortest and weakest of the trilogy, moves fast, with half of its narrative time devoted to the youths riding motorcycles in traffic-jammed streets.

The three segments, each done in utterly different style and tone, are linked by the central theme of love and by the same stunning-looking actors playing all the roles. “Three Times” evoke the epistolary relation between the central characters. Each story unfolds in a distinct way: languorous in the 1960s, slow and contemplative at the beginning of the twentieth century, and nervous and unsettled in the current times.

Modernization has affected the prevalent mode of interaction between the lovers, a point made clear by the director, who emphasizes the banal letters in 1966, the calligraphy on rice paper in 1911, and the text messaging and e-mails in 2005.

“Three Times” is sharply uneven (as most anthologies are) and unfortunately the quality is in descending order. Yet Hou Hsiao Hsien, in total command 0f his directorial skills, shows again what a master stylist he is, even when the text he's serving is only half-engaging. Sumptuous photography and astounding music combine to create the right mood for each of the stories; some of the film's images are both sublime and enchanting.

Though “Three Times” is not on par with Hou Hsiao Hsien's masterpieces of the 1990s, including “Flowers of Shanghai,” overall, this is a better picture than his previous Cannes-premiered picture, “Millennium Mambo.”