The deepest, most affecting moment of acting I’ve seen recently–the truest moment–passes in silence, almost as if nothing had happened. A man sits still, wordless, and after a while turns his eyes to the left, then passes his hand over his face. Behind him, a woman stands, swallows, blinks, manages half a smile. That’s all there is to the climax of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Three Times–and by “all,” I mean that’s the entire course of these characters’ lives, plus the fate of nations and the summation of a master filmmaker’s art, condensed into a few gestures. They last five seconds and seem never to end.
It’s like the tactile memory of a familiar hand in yours, recollected involuntarily at a funeral service. Moviegoers who have raptly followed Hou’s work over the years may expect such fullness and evanescence in Three Times, such subtlety combined with power; but they may be surprised at the extraordinary level of artifice that he practices here, while still touching you vividly.
To discuss the artifice, I need to explain that Three Times is like an anthology–one of those movies in which different filmmakers tell short, thematically related stories–but directed by Hou alone, with the same actors starring in all of the segments. Part one, “A Time for Love,” takes place in 1966 in the towns of Kaohsiung and Huwei and is a quiet, droll, perfectly realized tale of new romance, as discovered in a tiny poolroom. Part three, “A Time for Youth,” takes place in 2005 in Taipei and is noisy, fractured, restless–a centerless collision of sexed-up bodies, digital photos and cell-phone messages. The middle section, where you reach that heart-stopping climax, is called “A Time for Freedom.” It takes place in Dadaocheng in 1911–and since that was the era before talking pictures, Hou uses intertitles in the segment instead of spoken dialogue. When words fail the characters, it happens in a part of the movie that’s already “silent.”
This conceit, in itself, might have distanced you from the emotional core; and yet there’s more. The actors (Chang Chen and Shu Qi) are distractingly gorgeous; the setting for this segment (a high-toned brothel) continually catches your eye in rich surfaces, carved, embroidered or glazed; the light, ostensibly cast by kerosene lamps, pools like nectar in the room’s volume, so that it becomes a presence of its own. The camera, as it pans through the space, seems to tug at you with gentle insistence; while the soundtrack’s exquisite solo piano music winds through events, like ivy threading itself into a building. Sensual refinement threatens to engulf the story’s devastating human problem.
And then there’s the biggest distancing device of all: history. Toward the end of this segment, a title tersely announces “The Wuchang Uprising.” The Chinese revolution has begun; the liberation of Taiwan from Japan may be at hand–but offscreen. For the prostitute played by Shu Qi, and for the viewer, nothing changes, except that a young girl is brought into the brothel and begins her music lessons.
Hou has exploited this sort of dramatic irony before–in Puppetmaster, for example, where the end of World War II happens incidentally, in voiceover, while the narrator busies himself with more immediate concerns. Yet as ironies go, Hou’s are peculiarly warm and intimate. However limited his people may be in the face of circumstance, their personalities are somehow never diminished. In this segment of Three Times, Chang Chen’s character (a liberal journalist) is pathetically blind to the futility of his political hopes; but he still understands, however unwillingly, the worst consequence of his high-mindedness, in the damage done to his favorite prostitute. Whatever the fortunes of Taiwan, there will be no freedom for her. As this truth hits home and he sits wordless, covering his face, his suffering is palpable–though much less terrible than her suffering, when it’s wrenched into the form of that trembling half-smile.