Three love stories with the same actors in different eras. Can’t think of an apt comparison to another film (haven’t seen Resnais’ Smoking/No Smoking) but it’s sort of the opposite of Hal Hartley’s Flirt). I’d avoided this despite the acclaim because I thought it’d be long and boring (flashback to two Hou movies I didn’t enjoy/understand, Flowers of Shanghai and Goodbye South, Goodbye) but lately I’ve decided that those two required more attention than I gave them, so I watched this one twice (err, six times).
1966: A Time for Love
A perfect mini-movie, and it ends so simply and beautifully. He meets her by accident at a pool hall, looking for a different girl. Writes her letters while on his military duty, returns one day and finds her gone. This time, instead of just writing to the next girl, he tracks her down, spends his last few hours of leave with her. Repeated settings, actions and songs (“smoke gets in your eyes” and “rain and tears”) along with the period setting and romantic atmosphere unavoidable evoke Wong Kar-Wai.
Girish draws connections:
The original Chinese title of the film is Best Of Times. Hou, like a popular musician, is drawing from his “discography” of films for these three stories. The first reminds me in look and mood of A Time To Live And A Time To Die or Dust In The Wind; the second is set in a brothel like Flowers Of Shanghai; and the third clearly recalls the modern neon-smeared interior spaces of Millennium Mambo. So, Hou has created a sort of compilation album, only he has “remade” the ideas and memories behind his previous films into new stories.
1911: A Time for Freedom
Silent with piano music and intertitles for dialogue most of the time, traditional twangy vocal music a couple of times (performed, it turns out, by our woman). She is a geisha and apparently in love with her man, though he seems to pay her little mind, focusing on poetry, national politics and the fate of another geisha. He pays for the other girl to be freed when she becomes pregnant, leaving his own girl stuck and alone when he leaves town for Shanghai. Such slow, fluid, measured movements I am sometimes not sure if Hou’s movies are in slow-motion.
Of course, the principal subject of both “A Time for Freedom” and Flowers of Shanghai is liberationâ€”from a life of service for the long-suffering geishas, and from foreign rule for Houâ€™s homeland. Examining the dichotomous relationship between a wealthy activist (Chang) protesting the Japanese occupation of Taiwan and a geisha (Shu) longing desperately for a life outside the brothel, this is Houâ€™s most explicitly political work since his trilogy on 20th Century Taiwanese history (City of Sadness, The Puppet Master, Good Men, Good Women) and, arguably, his most resonant feminist statement to date.
2005: A Time for Youth
A confusing one – multiple girls with multiple problems, little explicit story but more detail information than ever. He’s a motorcycle-driving photographer and she’s a throat-tattooed, epileptic lounge singer with a scary website. Seemed to me the usual commentary on modern disconnection through overload of technology, not adding much besides superior cinematography, but the second time through I enjoyed it more (and figured out more, like the fact that He and She both have other girlfriends). Her girl says she’s committing suicide from neglect (touchy) towards the end. Still doesn’t have the emotional impact of the first two – I might’ve switched the order of the segments.
Senses of Cinema:
Hou represents this state of freedom by a narrative near-chaos transmitted with a calm and almost casual-looking inscrutability that makes the story impossible to comprehend to any satisfactory degree in just one viewing. It is ironic, though, that while an initial impression might well have been that many of the scenes are presented in a chronologically rather random order, careful examination seems to establish that the story is actually told in a scrupulously linear way.
Qi Shu (The Eye 2, Transporter and Sex & Zen 2) has got nothing on the career of costar Chen Chang (Red Cliff, Breath, Crouching Tiger, Happy Together and A Brighter Summer Day), but they’re both wonderful here. Story and characterizations are pretty minimal, movie gets by on weight of emotion, similar to Friday Night and In the Mood for Love – and it shares ITMFL’s co-cinematographer Pin Bing Lee, a Hou regular who also shot Air Doll and Norwegian Wood. Would look even more lovely, I’ll bet, if the DVD wasn’t all interlaced and non-anamorphic.