Three Times, the Hou Hsiao-hsien film I was so looking forward to in the San Diego Asian Film Festival, is not top-rung Hou, either. In fact it is bottom-rung Hou. In fact I did not know the rungs on his ladder went this low. The idea of pairing up the same actor and actress (Chang Chen and Shu Qi, both excellent) in three separate stories, set in three separate eras, seemed to me a good one, a likely way to explore concepts of chance and circumstance, the accident of birth, the luck of the draw, the universality of whatever. I didn't get much of that, or anything else, from the juxtaposition. Perhaps I was wrong to anticipate.
The first story, set in 1966, is all right, a bit more conventional and optimistic than normal for Hou, but communicating a strong sense, for all its slowness, of the fleetingness of life. The second segment, set in 1911 and going over some of the same ground as Flowers of Shanghai, affects the numbing, the dumbfounding device of silent-film intertitles for dialogue and no sound effects. (For some reason, we can nevertheless hear people sing in live performance, albeit dubbed.) The final segment, present day, brings an almost welcome cacophony of traffic, pop music, cellphones, etc., but it loses focus on our central pair. For me, the whole thing didn't add up. I'd have settled happily for just One Time. And the color throughout looked so lackluster that I was surprised to see in the closing credits that Hou's trusty cameraman, Mark Lee Ping-bin, was in his customary spot.
The overflow crowd in a matchbox auditorium at UltraStar Mission Valley 7 cheered me more than the film itself, although I would hate to think that this was anyone's first exposure to the Taiwanese master.