Monday, August 20, 2007

Three Times

2005, Taiwan, directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien

Though it's tempting to embrace the differences between the three episodes that make up Hou Hsiao-hsien's film, it's really only in viewing them as a whole that the director's ambition becomes apparent, exploring the changes both in Taiwanese society and that society's attitudes to relationships from the early twentieth century to today. He experiments, too, with different aesthetics, employing handheld cameras in the final, modern, sequence that contrast sharply with the smooth grace of the first two segments. The middle sequence is set in 1911, and Hou films it as a silent, with extensive intertitles (as a consequence, it's easily the wordiest of the three stories), but he doesn't make any other concessions to the filming techniques of 1911: he shoots in lush colour, with beautifully serene camerawork. While the decision to shoot the film without sound (except for music, which sometimes recalls the soundtrack for Jane Campion's The Piano) initially seems distracting, it slowly creates a means by which to appreciate the extreme ritualisation of upper-class life in Taiwan of that era; the lack of aural distractions is combined with an intense focus on the details of daily routine.

It's in the film's first sequence, though, the the film comes most fully alive, for a charmingly slight tale of tentative love, a film that starts out in a pool hall - a place filled with its own rituals and rhythms - and ends up on the road, as a young man (Chen Chang) searches for the object of his affection. As the segment progresses, Chang allows his character's mask to slip, allowing for wonderful moments of warmth that reveal the growing depth of his love, never more so than the smile that flashes across his face when his girlfriend's mother provides him with her daughter's whereabouts. The entire sequence captures the giddy sense of self-containment that accompanies any burgeoning romance: the outside world, so fraught in many films set in the mid-1960s, seems irrelevant here, its challenges easily overcome as the two characters fall into step beside one another.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States