Written by Jessie Tu
Something strange happens to me whenever I hear the four-bar melancholic, arpeggiated piano of the introduction of the classic ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.’
My eyes erupt with tears, as though I’d clumsily tossed a giant ball of wasabi into my mouth, flapping my hands in front of my face like an amateur-Japanese-diner.
The song is elegant — musically uncomplicated. It is, after all, a ballad and ballads are known for their nostalgic simplicity. But the slow, wavering scale of the piano, accompanied by the luscious droning strings, never fails to chaff violently against the walls of my heart. I end up sobbing, even before Tony Williams soars through the line ‘I —, I of course reply, something here inside, cannot be denied.’
The original version, from the musical Roberta, sounded more of like dance-number. The lyrics were written by Otto Harbach, the American lyricist who was also Oscar Hammerstein’s mentor.
The most famous iteration, the one we hear most often, was recorded by The Platters in 1959. And it’s the one that opens Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s 2005 film Three Times.
The film is made of three parts, each part divided into roughly forty-minute vignettes; like three movements of a concerto, or three acts in a play; though they are all stand alone stories.
Part I: A Time for Love, opens with The Platter’s number, and to 1966, inside the cool balmy interior of an old-fashioned poll hall in Kaohsiung. We meet a woman, whose attention rests softly on a man with reserved adoration. She is observing him as he focuses on getting clean shots. We are observing the scene with the slow, quiet languidness of a comfortably, half-asleep inebriate. The camera’s gaze meanders gently between the faces of our two main characters, and then to the motion of the cue stick (very phallic) to the crisp gliding of balls, so innocently at the will of calculated male bodies.
The single shot lasts for the entire length of the song and drips with the distinctive poetry of Hou, whose previous films A City of Sadness (1989), and A Time to Live, A Time to Die (1985) established the hypnotic precision of meticulously framed long-shots he’ll come to be known for.
In Part I, the camera centralises the female gaze — the woman is interested in the man, and we look at her look at him. We’re interested in her interest in him. Around the pool table, we see them exchange glances while trying to remain discreet about their mutual attraction.
The glances function like gestures of apprehensive tenderness, the modern equivalent would be, say, the flirtatious back-and-forth-texts between two lovers in the early stages of courtship. Affection withheld is the most agonising yet beautiful sort of love; restraint, more delicious than release.
This is another time, a slower time — the post-war endless-possibilities-period; a time when people moved around by bike; when saying ‘I’ll write to you’ is an admission of love, which is what the man tells the woman right before he goes off to military conscription; a time when finding a girl meant following leads from letters and involved physical travel.
Aphrodite's Child’s ‘Rain and Tears’— he tells her in a letter, reminds him of her, though this is strange because the song was recorded and released in 1968, two years into the future. A negligible error. Watching Li-Hui Lin aka Shu Qi 舒淇 (our female lead, in all three iterations) opening a letter is excruciatingly compelling. The song bleeds into the scene when she’s reading the man’s letter, becoming a surrogate for portraying the both characters’ longing and hunger for intimacy. We use music as a means to convey the emotions without a name. My father’s attempts to secure my mother’s affections involved a strategic series of ballads sung over the phone; music was employed and formed the basis of his operation.
The man returns from his military service, only to discover the woman has transferred to another pool-hall. The pursuit of love is both the easiest, and the hardest thing.
We follow the man as he travels across towns and cities to find the woman. He eventually locates her, and it’s a pretty sort of reunion. They share dinner at an outdoors diner. They race to the bus station because the man is due back at the barracks the following morning. He misses the last bus. It’s raining.
On the street, they stop at a crossing. The man switches his hand to hold the umbrella on his other hand. Cautiously, he reaches out and snakes his fingers around the woman’s. She folds her fingers around his. The hesitation shifts, in a matter of seconds, into a unanimous clasp.
It’s a beautiful scene - definitely the apex of the film, and more erotic and sensual then most sex scenes I’ve ever seen, precisely because it conjures a distinctive emotional sweep, supported in part by Demis Roussos' voice singing ‘Rain and Tears’. The scene reminds us that the most intimate transaction between two people might not necessarily be sexual, perhaps not even physical — but something else. Something that has not yet been defined by the written language, but which can be translated so flawlessly by a filmmaker who knows what he is doing.
I struggled with Part II; A Time for Freedom, perhaps because I found the piano score throughout the scenes highly invasive, distracting us from the abhorrent transactions of the female body that’s happening off camera. It’s a silent film; we don’t hear the character’s voices. Watching it for a second time, I felt so removed for this reason. Inter-titles stand in for dialogue. The woman in this story is a courtesan in a sophisticated brothel, and she’s longing to be untethered to her situation. The man is an intrepid political activist. When he returns from his adventures, he tells her where he has travelled, and she asks him when he will next leave.
The fragility is almost too overwhelming; everything moves so slowly, and their bodies glide with such disciplined fluidity. Again, there’s a magnetism to the way Shi Qi opens a letter from the man, unfurling the paper like she is unwrapping a human heart. As in Part I, love is communicated through a written letter.
I found the second part’s general affectation to be rather annoying. Too serious. Perhaps I don’t know how to interpret its beauty; maybe I am too overwhelmed by the constant piano twirling. I’d have preferred it with no music at all. I felt myself shimmering with impatience. But the vulnerability of each character is still there, and for that, we come to see they are destined to drift in and out of each other’s lives, carrying their love for each other in the privacy of their own concealed hearts, like two balls on a pool-table, sometimes colliding, by mostly, gliding by each other, and then disappearing.
I was stirred by the reality of the woman’s existence; a notion that’s coursed through my own history; as woman who has known the oppressive structures of living under a system of rules that didn’t allow me to take my body where it wanted to go; this texture of daily life felt extremely suffocating. The waiting, the unknowability of my own future. Perhaps love, intimacy, and the unspoken totality of our feelings towards one another is an understanding that stretches across days, months, years, and finally, into some oblivious, indeterminate thing. We don’t know, but that’s what makes life, and love, so thrilling.
Part III: A Time for Youth, opens on a highway in Taipei. The woman is riding on the back of a motorcycle, driven by the man. Early on, we see a closeup of her fingers pressed tightly together. What is she struggling with? Does she know herself?
The pair return to the man’s apartment, and when they eventually kiss and take off their clothes, it’s so bland, so unremarkable, that the scene becomes for me the least erotic part of the film.
Their jobs — he is a photographer, she is a singer, is emblematic of today’s artistic millennials; individuals who priorities self-expression and therefore, self-interest. We watch the woman hold a portable neon light to his pictures on his wall, as attentive as when the woman read letters from the man in Parts II and III. In all three parts, we see the woman’s response to the man’s creation. Here in Part III, the man takes pictures of the woman, and she collapses into a two-dimensional thing.
This story is the most depressing of the three. There’s barely any life on the face of either of our main characters. They’re both unfaithful to their partners, and they’re both indifferent to how their actions affect those who love them. They move like sad, tired creatures who have been killed by something; Capitalism? Modernity? They are deformed by the untenable existence of being in the swampy fluoresce of Taipei, with its gleaming lights and polluted murky horizons. When they’re alone in his apartment, they press their bodies against each other like two sexually charged mammals, gripping flesh to flesh in a corporeal hunger I haven’t felt in years. It’s like they are trying to stop some sort of emotional haemorrhage from happening. But intimacy and sex are two different things.
If the man and the woman in Part I are pregnant with the limitlessness of a life about to commence, their equivalents in Part III are dying, already diminished by their own sense of shame and irrepressible dissatisfaction.
“I have no past, or future. Just a hungry present,” the woman writes on her website. Contemporary life has left our heroine and hero unmoored, apathetic and broken by the discursive social psychosis of living in modern-day Taipei.
I watched the film again before sitting down to write this article and found that I instinctually kept returning to Part I, over and over and over. I could barely sit still through Part II, and Part III left me in some needling state of emotional deficiency. In just over two hours, I felt myself whirl from hopefulness, to desire, to anxiety, to despair. And in the end, I was left with more questions than answers swimming around in my head, which is what our greatest artists gift to the world.
Three Times is now available on STAN.
Written by Jessie Tu