The new film from Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao Hsien tells three love stories set in three different eras, with the same actors (Chang Chen, Shu Qi) playing the leads in each segment. Written correspondence is important, sometimes heartbreakingly so, in all three relationships ... and in each one, awkward, exigent or unrequited love seems to serve as a metaphor for the Taiwanese political and cultural condition at the time.
Three Times opens in 1966 with the simple, languid, interminable "A Time for Love." A woman who works in a billiards parlor meets a man on the night before he leaves for his military service. He promises to write, which he does, and on leave he returns to see her. They have a meal and hold hands at the bus station while he waits for his ride back to base. The musical motif is The Platters singing "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."
Then it's 1911, where the music is Chinese and nickelodeon piano, the occupiers are Japanese, and the lovers are a married Japanese diplomat and a prostitute he meets at a classy brothel. He's a man of high morals, so he can't take her as a mistress, and he tells her so in a letter. True to its historic era, "A Time for Freedom" is a silent film, with dialogue presented on title cards, although Hou photographs it in color, which commercial cinema only started doing in the 1930s.
Finally, 2005 is "A Time for Youth." The woman is bisexual in a three-way affair, the threat comes from a militaristic China, and people offer to sell their souls at online sex sites. As if to signal modernity, the story opens with rapid movement: the man and woman on a motorbike, racing through Taipei. This is ironic, because, of course, they're going nowhere.
"Are you okay?" he asks as she clings, weeping, to his back. They make love, then go about their lives as denizens of the nightlife. At a smoky bar, the woman sings a dissonant dirge in incomprehensible English, and she reads text messages from each lover while in the other's bed (figuratively in one case: The lesbianism is very discreet - brief hugs and pecks on the cheek, but no kisses).
Through all of this, Hou seems to trace his country's emergence from an occupied state to a military state to a 21st-century citizen of the modern world and all of its complex identities and entanglements. The film is gorgeous visually, and sprinkled with cultural tidbits (like the national popularity of billiards). It also leaves the impression that Taiwan is a somewhat romantically and even clinically depressed country. One shouldn't presume to learn too much about a culture from the work of one filmmaker. But what else can we take from Hou's placid triptych of love stories, except perhaps that love is hard, and that the more things change, the more they stay virtually the same. In Mandarin and Taiwanese, with subtitles.