The Many Lives of Hou Hsiao-Hsien


Freeze Frame

In Tash Aw’s column Freeze Frame, he explores his favorite masterpieces of Asian cinema. In this installment, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Three Times.

Still from Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Three Times (2005)

Not long after the turn of the millennium, there were a few years where it seemed I was saying goodbye to people all the time. People I loved, who had been part of my life for a very long time, but also people I’d only recently met and formed close friendships with strangely and swiftly, the way you sometimes do when you find yourself in a city far from home. My first book had recently been published and suddenly I was offered opportunities to travel in ways that I had only dreamed of as a child. I went to places I’d always wanted to visit, and occasionally I would stay on once the book tour was over, forming attachments to cities that seemed magical and full of promise, like Vancouver or Mumbai. Friends would put me in touch with friends of theirs, in some cases people they barely knew, who would show me around, and talk to me about what it meant to live there. They opened their lives to me and in doing so, changed the way I saw the world. Each time I had to say goodbye I felt unexpectedly sad, as if I was losing something that I had come to regard as my own—as if after only a few days, a week, a month, I had carved out a space for myself in that new country, in those new friends’ lives, only to leave it all behind.

Shanghai, where I lived on and off over the space of two years, proved especially difficult to leave. I had initially gone there to research a novel, but friends in Malaysia thought that I was going to rediscover my Chinese roots. I laughed because the idea seemed ridiculous. Growing up in Malaysia, I couldn’t not be aware of my origins—of what it meant to have the language, culture, and physical features of southern China embedded in my identity, whether I liked it or not. I didn’t need to go searching for a heritage that was already mine. And yet. Several times in Shanghai, I met locals who weren’t interested in the multiplicity of my identity (Chinese Malaysian, Chinese- and English-speaking at home, Malay-speaking at school, et cetera). For them, I was Chinese, and only Chinese, a simplicity that should have upset me, would have upset me if I had been in New York or Paris. But in Shanghai, it felt as though the city were absorbing me, claiming me as its own, even though we both knew that this sense of belonging was just an illusion.

Back in Kuala Lumpur, I spoke with my parents about this odd sensation of wanting to be part of somewhere that isn’t your home. I asked them about the three years they spent working in Taipei in the early seventies, a time when—as the few remaining stories and photographs would suggest—they seemed happy and settled. (There had been race riots in Malaysia in 1969, hundreds of ethnic Chinese had been murdered on the streets of Kuala Lumpur; Taipei must have been a relief). Had they been tempted to stay in Taipei? Were they sad to leave? They shrugged. “Don’t remember,” they said. “Anyway, that’s life, isn’t it? It was time to go home.”

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Three Times is about how it feels to say goodbye—about the long, drawn-out feeling of knowing that you are about to separate from a person, a place, a time, and once you have parted ways you will never quite be the same again. The film is made up of three distinct segments, each about forty-five minutes in length and each with its own texture, rhythm, and atmosphere. All three sections revolve around the same two actors, Shu Qi and Chang Chen, who inhabit different characters in different eras, spanning nearly a hundred years. Each time, they have to part.

The first movie-in-a-movie, titled “A Time for Love,” is set in Kaohsiung in 1966, in a pool hall in a sleepy neighborhood where Shu Qi’s character, May, works as an attendant, keeping the customers company during their games. One of them is a young army conscript called Chen, played by Chang Chen, and very soon the two form an attachment expressed in timid glances, the odd anxious look, a shy smile. The camera lingers on the lamp that hangs over the pool table, or the dust suspended in the air, caught by the light so clearly that every particle seems crucial. Even though there are numerous breaks, the camera stays with the characters so intimately, so lovingly, that we feel as if we are there with them in one long scene, in an extended present. 1966 could be now; it could be any year at all. The choice of The Platters’ Smoke Gets in Your Eyes as the theme song confuses my sense of time even further, for this was one of my parents’ favorite songs, redolent of a time when Asia was opening its cultural boundaries and exploring its fascination with America. I heard the song all the time during my childhood in Kuala Lumpur in the seventies, and when I recently watched the film again, I was struck by how similar the quiet lanes of Kaohsiung in the sixties resembled those of Kuala Lumpur a decade later. The language the characters speak is Taiwanese Hokkien, almost identical to the dialect my parents use to speak to each other. I felt as though I was watching a scene from my parents’ life, a time before they became the people I knew, who were never able to enjoy life’s simple pleasures. A time when they could contemplate staying in one place without having to move to find work or live without violence.

But the inevitable happens, as we are half-expecting it to. May decides to move away, and when Chen returns on leave, he finds that another young woman has taken her place. Finally, he tracks May down to another pool hall in a new town, but by the time he finds her, they have only a few hours together before he has to return to the army barracks later that evening. She accompanies him to the station, but they find that the last train has just left. It starts to rain, so they wait, sheltering under an umbrella, unable to articulate their final goodbye.

The second segment, “A Time for Freedom,” is set in Japanese-occupied Taiwan in 1911, and this time the two actors play a courtesan working in a brothel and her most faithful client, an intellectual engaged in the fight for political freedom. When the two are finally parted—by the threat of war, by his principals, by her social entrapment—the courtesan must bid goodbye not just to the man she has come to love, but to her dreams of being a free, independent woman. Conversely, in the final section, “A Time for Youth,” Shu Qi’s 2005 incarnation, a singer in Taipei, holds the power of choice and decides to leave her girlfriend after an affair with Zhen, a photographer played by Chang Chen. We are supposed to feel the messiness and confusion of youth, the intense, heady nature of life in the underground Taipei club scene, but all I could see was how choice had left the characters in a state of permanent flux. Even with an abundance of freedom, relationships start and end all the time, and the characters are diminished in ways they can’t really understand.

Over the course of a hundred years, we see the same two faces struggling to achieve intimacy. They travel across time to find that sense of belonging, yet it eludes them. Always, they have to accept a situation they would rather not. Watching the film for the first time, I remembered what my grandfather once told my sister, not long after she had left home at fifteen to attend high school on a scholarship in Singapore. She was homesick, she said, also physically sick, she had the flu, she didn’t belong there, she wanted to come home. “You’re an immigrant,” my grandfather said, “just put up with it and fit in.” I remember being outraged: he was an immigrant, my sisters and I were not, we didn’t have to put up with being perpetual outsiders.

But watching Three Times again during that period of intense and seemingly never-ending travel, I realized that I had absorbed more of his advice than I’d thought, and that I was in fact more anchored than adrift. I attached myself to those countries I’d visited, transforming my rootlessness into a place of temporary shelter. In those in-between spaces, I found others who straddled cultures and languages, at once insiders and outsiders. We formed friendships so quickly and intimately we sometimes felt as though we’d known each other in previous lives, always having to say goodbye before finding each other again in some other time and place.


Read earlier installments of Freeze Frame here

Tash Aw’s most recent novel is We The Survivors.