Yesterday the International Film Festival featured Three Times by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien. (His given name Hsiao-hsien is romanized as Xiaoxian in pinyin.)

There are three love stories, set in Taiwan in 1966, 1911 and 2005, and played by the same lead actor and actress. As usual in a certain recent style of Chinese film-making, the director does not have much use for such things as story and dialog.

The 1911 story, indeed, is played as a silent movie: even though the actors talk to each other, we hear no live sound, only music. Part of the dialog is reproduced in “interstitial” subtitles, that is, subtitles presented in separate frames. It is intriguing at the beginning, but it gets old very quickly. The 2005 story is completely useless. A guy goes out with a girl, who suffers from epilepsy and has a lesbian lover. That’s it, made into a half-hour section.

The 1966 story is actually beautiful. A guy meets a girl in a pool bar just before he has to leave for his military service. The two correspond by letter. On a weekend break he searches through all of Taiwan for the girl (who, meanwhile, has moved twice). He finds her when he has only a few hours left before having to go back to his base.

Contemporary Chinese filmmakers have perfected the art of telling love stories that are ill-timed (or made difficult/impossible by duties/circumstances), and of depicting the resulting feeling of longing. Just think of any movie by Wong Kar-Wai, or even of more commercial ones like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Brokeback Mountain.

Indeed, every time I see a Chinese movie like this, I am reminded that Western film-makers haven’t been able (or willing?) to take a love story seriously in a very long time. One finds romantic comedies, surely, or very dark movies about sexual attraction, usually treated as a destructive force. (I am thinking of American Beuty as a mild example, or The Piano Teacher as an extreme one.) But is there a recent Western movie about love that is not about destructive sexuality, not about being funny, and that is not an unwatchable chick-flick? To clarify the terminology: if one of the characters is dying of leukemia, it’s a chick-flick, and if one of the characters is a prostitute who looks like Julia Roberts, that’s funny.

By the way, Chen Chang, the male lead in Three Times, had supporting roles in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and in 2046 and, most notably, he was also the “third guy” in Happy Together.

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