I have never before felt so thankless in writing a review - I come to praise the merits of one of the greatest films of this decade, in the full knowledge that most of my readers will never have the chance to see it, let alone the inclination.

I refer to Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Three Times, currently making an anemic run through America's art theatres before its release to an overpriced DVD that you can't find in stock anywhere. A tremendous pity: this film is nothing shy of a masterpiece. Rarely does a film triumph so holistically: the cinematography would be nothing without the soundtrack would be nothing without the editing would be nothing without the acting.

The three times of the title are 1966, 1911 and 2005. Each year witnesses a love story involving two young people. All three times, the couple is played by the same pair of actors: pop star Shu Qi and occasional Wong Kar-Wai collaborator Chang Chen.

The stories are titled, respectively, "A Time for Love," "A Time for Freedom" and "A Time for Youth," but love, freedom and youth are found in all three stories, although not always expressed the same way, or to the same degree. At any rate, viewing Three Times as discrete chunks is a mistake, I think, as the film functions much more as a continuum, an exploration of love as a function of history and place. I am told that a more literal translation of the title would be The Best of Times, which evokes this idea a bit more; it does not chop the film into pieces, but suggests a flow.

The arc across the stories is to strip the Romanticism out of love. In 1966, a hostess at a snooker hall agrees to receive letters from a departing sailor; he returns to pursue her. In 1911, a courtesan silently pines for a young revolutionary who never quite perceives the nature of her attraction. In 2005, a pop singer fools around with a photographer, leaving her girlfriend in a web of lies. It is not quite so programmatic as "love -> less love -> no love," but that is the general pattern of things.

Many reviewers have tried to take the film piece by piece, adoring the 1966 sequence but finding the others weak. I can't imagine on what level that seems reasonable. Three Times isn't an anthology film, it's a whole work, and none of the three stories has or should have meaning outside of its relationship to the other two. I also see the complaint rather frequently that the sequences are all derivative of other Hou films; having only seen Millennium Mambo, I can verify that it's more than a bit similar to the 2005 sequence. But that's beside the point. The point of this film isn't the individual stories, it's the way in which they sit beside each other. And not merely as romantic vignettes, but as historical moments.

Certainly, historicity is an obsession of the film, and each sequence tells a story tied to its era. "A Time for Freedom" uses the Japanese occupation of Taiwan as a metaphor for its heroine's sexual repression (or is it the other way around?). The story in "A Time for Love" is carried on the back of The Platters' "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and Aphrodite's Child's "Rain and Tears." Cell phones and text messaging all but replace dialogue in "A Time for Youth." And the historical development from era to era is impossible to ignore: in 1911 the lovers never touch or admit to love; in 1966 they hold each others' hand in the rain (in one of the most blissfully romantic moments I have ever seen in a film); in 2005 they have sex and fall asleep together. Or the gradual replacement of beautifully written letters in 1911 by quick notes in 1966, themselves replaced by tiny LCD screens full of incoherent poetry in 2005.

On a level of sheer craft, the film excels in almost every conceivable way. The very first shot of the film is a slow crane around the edges of a dark green snooker table covered in red and yellow balls, and from that moment on there will hardly ever be a time in which color and framing and editing are not all precisely orchestrated. In particular, I'm hard-pressed to think of another film in which camera movement and editing twine together in such a way: the camera moves us one place, a cut takes us away, the camera goes back; or sometimes the other way around. And it's a rare example of a film where the choice not to cut is obvious, and always well-done (I think now of the final shot of the film: the camera pushes through traffic, catching up to the lovers on a motorcycle, but they pull ahead and out of sight; it's an image that unites love, freedom and youth in one perfect moment, and it's very conspicuously effected in one shot). In general, I would praise Hou and cinematographer Mark Lee for the perfection of the camera movements, which create as full a sense of offscreen space as I've seen outside of Renoir; and the palette, which moves from warm, joyful colors in 1966 and the flush of love, to claustrophobic earth tones in 1911, to antiseptic blues and greys in 2005.

The use of sound is also striking, especially in the 1911 sequence, which has been made as a silent film, complete with title cards. At the beginning and end, the courtesan sings along to a traditional chant on the soundtrack (a marked difference from the pop music of 1966, and not wholly alien from the pop star's songs in 2005), and the rest is vaguely Western piano music. It's a potent remind of how well film works as a purely visual medium (almost every shot in this sequence reinforces the idea that it all takes place in a cage, or a prison), and is a shocking contrast to the following sequence, which opens with the chaotic noise of traffic.

The tone of the film is not elegiac, though it documents the limitations of love; nor is it critical, contra the reviews that seek to paint Hou as a cranky old man for hating the modern world and idolising the days of his youth. Three Times simply is. What has happened before will happen again, even as it is happening now, the film suggests. We all experience life the same way that it has always been experienced.


And now I shall do something you're not supposed to do, which is steal from another reviewer. I do this because Jonathan Rosenbaum has likely seen more Hou Hsiao-Hsien films than I will ever have the opportunity to see, and because what he said needs to be heard, as evidence of how profoundly fucked-up and arbitrary American film distribution can be. From June 23:
"Most of Hou'’s 16 other features have screened [in Chicago] at the Film Center, receiving their limited distribution thanks to Wendy Lidell, who acquired them for Wellspring. IFC Films picked up Three Times around the time Harvey and Bob Weinstein picked up Wellspring and promptly pulled from distribution most of its collection, including all its Hou films - —resuming their Miramax practice of suppressing more films than they distribute, keeping competitors from showing the films they choose not to. And Harvey Weinstein, who likes to recut the few films he does distribute, has implicitly set himself up as the key artistic figure at Wellspring. All this helps explain why the works of Asia'’s greatest living film master will now be harder to see than ever. Three Times, one of the peaks of his career, may be your last chance to see his work inside a movie theater."