Essentials #23: THREE TIMES (2005)

Matthew Oquendo
Oct 3, 2016 · 8 min read

Three different eras — 1911, 1966, 2005. Two actors. One romance. Hou-Hsiao Hsien’s film is an exploration of love and memories across time.

I’m out of my element here since I’ve only seen two of this director’s work (the other being MILLENIUM MAMBO (2001)). I also don’t think I fully understand the deeper themes of this film so it’s one of the rare times where I saw a piece of art, loved it, but did not know or could not express why.

I just do.

When that happens, it’s exciting because the work resonates on an intuitive level. Often times, we enjoy something and provide rational explanations to support our opinions (i.e. “I like this piece of art because of A, B, C, etc.”), but some works are simply unexplainable.

Perhaps Hou-Hsiao Hsien’s film is just that. Maybe he is a more sophisticated filmmaker than I am accustomed to. But this is an essay and I want you to see this so I’ll try my best.

To preface, this movie might be a struggle for Western eyes.

To describe the story of THREE TIMES is where it gets all meta. You see, the film is broken into three segments, all titled:

  1. A Time for Love — set in 1966
  2. A Time for Freedom — set in 1911 (during Japanese-occupied Taiwan)
  3. A Time For Youth — set in 2005

All three segments use the same actors — Shu Qi and Chang Chen (who by the way, make a great on-screen couple). All three segments deal with circumstances in which they fall in love or are in need of it. However, none of the segments are related in any way. They each play completely different characters in different story-arcs (I’ll get into that).

The first segment (my favorite) begins the film at a pool hall in 1966, where May (Qi) is the hostess. During the opening scene, Chan (Chen) shoots a round of pool and it’s obvious May likes him, but Chan doesn’t notice because he is in love with another hostess named Haruko.

One day, he leaves a love letter for Haruko but she doesn’t reciprocate her feelings, and leaves the letter in a drawer. May later finds Chan’s letter and reads it and it basically stated: Chan is leaving for the army and will not return for a year. He wants to see Haruko one last time.

Next week, Chan goes back to the pool hall and guess who he sees? May. She tells Chan that Haruko moved away. Heartbroken, Chan takes his mind off her by playing pool with May into the wee hours of the night, casually getting to know each other with the passing hour. Finally, when May’s about to close up the pool hall, Chan runs back to the pool house and tells her he’s going to the army and that he’d like to write to her while he is gone.

May is flattered.

Then a giant leap in narrative: one year passes.

Chan’s returned from military service. The first thing he does is go back to the pool hall see May. To his surprise, she is gone. He asks around and they direct him to different pool halls in neighboring towns.

The rest of the ‘1966’ segment is Chan’s search for May in one afternoon.


If you’re still with me, this is the kind of film THREE TIMES is. It’s virtually plotless and meditative. It’s feels more like a compilation of moments in time. Hsien’s camera captures the natural ebb and flow of each character like water going through a river. However elusive the style may seem, there is a fluidity in his direction. There is an atmosphere Hsien creates. As a viewer, if you linger with it with full attention, you just might ‘get it,’ or god forbid, actually enjoy the film.

I said the film might be a struggle for Western Eyes. What I mean is that most audiences might find this movie very slow. Notice how the camera is shot from only one point-of-view. Notice the lack of ‘American’ vocabulary in terms of coverage (close-ups, wide shots, two shots, long shots, etc). Shots are all long, sweeping takes consisting of simple panning and rack focusing. As a result, the sedated atmosphere feels very intimate, as if we’re creeping in on a secret conversation.

It’s kind of like the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ ride at Disneyland. Nothing really happens. It goes on its own pace. But it’s oddly enjoyable.

**The worst thing you can do is watch this movie on your phone or constantly pause and get up. I mean, you shouldn’t do that regardless of ANY screening, but for this particular movie, that would absolutely ruin your viewing.

The ‘1911’ segment explores ‘love’ influenced by societal factors: class, customs, survival, etc. This portion of the film is entirely silent. Just music and title cards that explain the backstory. I didn’t know a lot about imperial Japan in Taiwan in this period so I found this part of the film a little confusing. But it was interesting.

Ah Mei (Qi), is a prostitute at a brothel and Chang (Chan) is one of her regular clients. A bond grows between them and their relationship develops. After doing some research, there is a clear parable between Ah Mei’s desire for freedom and Taiwan’s desire to be relinquished from Japan’s rule.

Hsien has many ideas at work here such as the relation between love and freedom and love out of necessity. Ah Mei falls for Chang because he is good to her. He genuinely cares for her, not to mention he is her only chance at her freedom.

The cinematography in this film is beautiful, particularly in this segment, the images are the focal point in delivering its story and the emotions of its characters. There is no denying Hsien is truly a filmmaker of the cinema. If you can tell a story or evoke feelings without anyone saying a word (or in this case, sound), you have an understanding of what cinema inherently is.

Lastly, the segment ‘A Time for Youth’ shows our main characters in the contemporary world trying to find love and meaning in a growing technological environment that drives them apart. Out of the three segments, this is the most somber. Perhaps Hsien is pointing out how difficult love can be in a modern world and how it can be meaningless.

Granted, this in in 2005, so imagine if Hsien had waited a few years for the social media explosions of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. His message could not be a more culturally relevant to the present world, where social media is a major part of human relations.

The question regarding social media: these tools are intended to ‘connect us’ all together; however, are they really driving us apart?

The ‘Youth’ segment is reminiscent of the films of Michelangelo Antonioni in the way it works with themes of loneliness and isolation in a big city. Set in Taipei, the third and final segment focuses on triangle between a photographer (Chang), his girlfriend (Qi) and her bisexual lover.

Cellphones play a large part just like letters did in the ‘1911’ and ‘1966’ portions. While modes of communication will constantly change as time progresses, non-verbal communication, whether in print, online, or a text message, does not change.

I think the main points, if there are any, is that love fundamentally connects all humans, regardless of era. However, love can be complex in that people have many different reasons to love one another. By casting the same characters in each story, it lets the audience identify the evolution of these relationships and love across different eras.

However, I’m not entirely sure of my interpretations. Again, I will reiterate that I haven’t seen enough of Hsien’s pictures to comment on what he’s really trying to say, if in fact, he’s trying to say anything. It’s quite possible Hsien wants to capture moments of life that are often ignored or taken for granted, and is using a common humanistic theme to connect them all.

Who can say?

But that’s the point of these reviews. If you want to be a filmmaker or learn about the craft of cinema, you have to expose yourself to as many different kinds of movies that will change your idea of what a movie is to you. Every [skilled] filmmaker truly offers a different point-of-view that will affect its viewer. You would be short-changing yourself to only watch popular American films and no foreign films [and vice-versa, only foreign films and non-American]. Most importantly, you must think critically about movies if we want this form to last. This is something I feel is lacking with the current generation of filmgoers and filmmakers.

As for THREE TIMES, I am extremely excited to see a film like this and have it resonate with me on a level I cannot fully comprehend. That is what keeps me coming back and that is why it is an influence for me. With the constant barrage of remakes and cliches, we are getting to a point where audiences are constantly complaining, “Movies are not original anymore” or “It’s so hard to find a good story on film,” and here is Hsien completely shattering those claims in the modern era with film, which basically states:

Of course there are original stories out there! Of course you can still push the boundaries of cinema!

There is so much more to cinema that we have not explored yet. The only difference between today and yesterday is that it’s more difficult to create something ‘new’ or ‘fresh,’ but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible.

I’m up for a challenge and you should be too.

This is part of an ongoing series where I will be doing movie reviews from my original ESSENTIALS Film List.

Matthew Oquendo

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Filmmaker | Photographer | MatthewOquendo.com

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