Hou's not-so-hidden agenda is to throw down some heavy concepts and bold symbolism instead of a candid rumination on the nature of love
Three times the charm? Not quite. This dreamy triptych on the wares of love and communication from the Ozu-fixated Hou Hsiao-Hsien veers dangerously close to being a dazzling celebration of cinema past and present, but is let down by a soggy and unfocused final third.
The film is a trio of emotionally fraught love stories set respectively in 1966, 1911 and 2005, and all three star the same pair of actors (Shu Qi and Chang Chen). As we witness the intricacies of their courtship via the context of three very different backdrops, it becomes increasingly clear that Hou's not-so-hidden agenda is to throw down some heavy concepts and bold symbolism instead of offering anything that might be described as a candid rumination on the nature of blossoming love.
Both leads give performances of quiet, rapturous intensity which help to build on Hou's fluid camerawork and florid tableaux. The best of the three stories by some way is the opening one in which Shu plays a wandering billiards hostess who receives some mixed emotional signals from Chang as an army officer on furlough. The Platters' 'Smoke Gets In Your Eyes' acts as the soundtrack to their romance and its repeated use echoes that of 'California Dreaming' in the later half of Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express.
The following section is a total stylistic and emotional U-turn, played out in silence with all of the lovers' speech subtitled on the screen. This, at first, smacks of a director who's out to annoy, but soon transcends its gimmickry through sheer strength of heart.
Alas, it's the misfiring final third which spoils the show as we're given a trendy uncle perspective on how the youth of Beijing all wander around in baggy jumpers and are all, like, 'really fucked up'. The common strain that runs through these nervous romances never makes itself truly felt, leaving the film lacking in some kind of conceptual closure.
As a follow-up to his much touted but little seen cinematic shrine to Ozu, Café Lumiere, Three Times sees Hou sealing his reputation as a filmmaker and an artist as opposed to a purveyor of entertainment.
Hou Hsiao-Hsien is regarded by highbrow types as some sort of genius.
Slow, stately and sexy as hell.
Lop off the ugly appendage which is the final third and you'll be fine.