Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films are events, in the word’s purest sense — watching one unfold in Hou’s contemplative long takes gives you the feeling that life is something that’s happening to you at that very moment. So Three Times (finally a marketing event, too, the highest-profile release of any Hou film to date) riffs on memory, the thing signified by its literal title The Best of Times, via three love stories set respectively in 1966, 1911 and 2005, each starring Shu Qi and Chang Chen.
The first section, “A Time for Love,” is the one most swooned over by Hou, unsurprisingly since it’s derived from his own recollections. (The soundtrack, featuring Hou favorites ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ and ‘Rain and Tears,’ has the unembarrassed ache of nostalgia.) The flirtation between solider Chen and pool hall girl Shu unfurls in stolen glances amid the print shirts and green felt venerated by the director’s gaze; the cumulative effect is that of an ideal memory.
The other memories are of prior Hou films. In “A Time for Freedom,” his return to the exquisitely suffocating brothel drama Flowers of Shanghai, Shu is a courtesan and Chen the dissident patron for whom she pines. Underscoring the irony of the title is a camera confined, as in Shanghai, to interiors; and a modified silent movie format that contrasts the formality of the intertitled dialogue with the bottled-up longing of Shu and Chen’s faces.
That “A Time for Youth,” the fragmentary, laptop-gray closer, recaptures the urban disaffect of Hou’s Millenium Mambo without that film’s enveloping neon pulse perhaps keeps Three Times from the uppermost echelon of Hou’s work, but such definitive judgments tend to dissipate in the current of his camera. I could watch this movie forever.