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.
Now that I've made a big deal out of this one moment, let me admit that all the others in Three Times are equally good. In the enchanting 1966 episode--the one that's closest to Hou's own experience--Chang Chen also dips his head, having been stumped into silence; but from a gesture that's strikingly similar to the journalist's, he draws not anguish but deadpan comedy. Later, in the role of the dream girl, Shu Qi performs her own miracle, triumphing over the actor's great challenge of pretending to be surprised. When Chang Chen, after long absence, walks into the poolroom where she works, she doubles over in breathless laughter, and by this feat redeems not only him but the whole world.
You get no comparable moment of satisfaction in the third episode, but that's because dissatisfaction is the ruling emotion of Hou's Taipei 2005. "No past, no future," Shu Qi's character says of herself--a telling comment in a movie that until now has been all about memories and hopes--"just a greedy present." If that's indeed the situation, then Hou gives you the hunger raw. In the role of a pop singer, Shu Qi intones a trance-drone ditty on the stage of a club while Chang Chen circles her at a distance of two inches, compulsively gulping her image (and starving himself) by taking photo after photo.
Since entire dissertations could be written--and probably will be--about links among the episodes in Three Times, I will not even open that subject. Hou draws your attention to the different lighting fixtures used in each era, the different types and roles of written communication, the shifting foreign influences that the characters must adopt or resist, the radically changed circumstances for women. No, I haven't yet started--because as Three Times plays and replays in memory, it keeps deepening, expanding, growing more complex, as one of those rare films whose life truly begins not on the screen but in your mind.
So I conclude with a warning: "If you see only one movie this year, make it Three Times!" Hou Hsiao-hsien wants your experience to be so rich and complete that it could, conceivably, make other films unnecessary. By all means, go to see his new picture. But be prepared to clear your schedule.
In the coin toss of college life, art students are the great wobblers, stuck on edge and unable to fall. They don't seem to know whether they're waiting for inspiration or sitting around bored, fooling other people into thinking they're talented or fooling just themselves, pining away for love or avoiding work. To experience this full, authentic teeter in cinematic form, you would need to dig up Caveh Zahedi's A Little Stiff. Failing that, you can still get a lot of sardonic pleasure, plus maybe a little too much resolution, from Art School Confidential.
Reuniting director Terry Zwigoff and writer Daniel Clowes (whose first collaboration was the incomparable Ghost World), Art School Confidential follows whey-faced, virginal Jerome (Max Minghella) through his first semester in downtown New York. He falls, no doubt hopelessly, for the reigning art-gallery queen and life-study model (Sophia Myles). He recoils at, and yet is drawn to, a reclusive older artist steeped in slivovitz and failure (Jim Broadbent, evoking memories of poor, doomed Charles in Zwigoff's Crumb). He struggles to find meaning in the posturing of his teachers (notably John Malkovich, playing a fellow who is proud to have spent a quarter-century learning to paint triangles) and thrashes about trying to impress them. The more he thrashes, the worse his work gets. Maybe this material isn't entirely fresh, but Zwigoff delivers it with the snap of a quick punch to the face--which is, in fact, the first image in the film, and a model for innumerable excellent sight gags to follow.
Less snappy, unfortunately, is the campus murder mystery, which supplies the film with suspense, excitement, development, structure--everything an art student doesn't need. The more this plot takes over, the more it turns Jerome into a neatly contained symbolic figure, despite his supposed late-semester breakup. I didn't mind, much. However conventional the murder mystery, Jerome is still left weeping near the end, heartbroken that the gallery queen doesn't love him and baffled that no one admires the careful, detailed portrait he's made. It looks exactly like her.
* * *
Searching for a term adequate to describe Park Chanwook's Lady Vengeance--a film that begins with Korean carolers, dressed as Santas, performing a country gospel tune, and ends with the cries of terrified children and a visit from a ghost--I reach for my James Joyce and choose "collideorscape." What else to call this mad jumble of overhead shots, pop-in-the-face close-ups, slanting perspectives and faux TV-news footage, this fireworks burst of scattered time frames and points of view, this Grand Guignol joke that turns into a women-behind-bars thriller that turns into a deadly serious morality play? A collideorscape it is, and a very fine one.
Angel-faced Lee Yeong-ae stars as the title character, newly paroled after serving some thirteen years in prison for kidnapping and murdering a small boy. Her intentions upon release are murky--but judging by the way she slaps on her dark glasses, after telling the evangelist who sprang her to go screw himself, she must be planning something outside the range of the godly. By the end, she hasn't recovered her reputation as a prison-house saint, but neither does she qualify any longer for her cellmates' nickname, The Witch. This transformation no doubt helps to explain why Lady Vengeance is currently the movie of choice among intelligent young women. The rest of the explanation? Sheer aesthetic bliss.
* * *
Dressed in respectable suits and ties, the men stand clustered in a spare and shuttered room, arguing over how best to kill the figure cowering against the wall. They can't shoot him--the neighbors would hear. They can't stab him--they have no knife. They'll just have to figure out how to strangle him. This distasteful task takes a long time and entails some bickering, but it must be done. The victim is a traitor; and the killers, who in another movie might have been gangsters, are the French Resistance.
You may take this tough, adrenaline-charged, utterly uncompromising scene as typical of Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows. Based on Joseph Kessel's 1943 book of the same title, the classic insider's account of the French Resistance, the film was a labor of both love and conscience for Melville, who had been a member of the Resistance. Featuring an exceptional cast--Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel--and an epic running time, Army of Shadows ranks high among the works of this remarkable filmmaker. Yet after its 1969 release in France, the film found no distribution in the United States--perhaps because its vision of the Resistance, though gripping, is also thoroughly unheroic.
Now Rialto Pictures, the company that successfully reissued Melville's Bob Le Flambeur and Le Cercle Rouge, has arranged for the first US theatrical release of Army of Shadows, in a restored print. It has just opened at New York's Film Forum and will soon be playing around the country. There is nothing more to say, except "Go."