Poor timing and longing

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.

9 thoughts on “Poor timing and longing

  1. you just have to understand that in america, we are in love with ourselves, and our best love stories reflect this. seriously, see the hollywood produced “closer” of 2004 (based on a play by patrick marber). ironically, it’s set in london. (it’s not a comedy, as evidenced by the fact that julia roberts plays a photographer and not a prostitute.)

  2. Serious love stroy — a heroic dream in a medicore life.

    Maybe it’s because Chinese are in love with themselves and they take love stories and themselves so seriously.

  3. good observation luca. the american directors are probably wise enough to realize that romance is just a fantasy. something which is unattainable in real life and hence a source of frustration. they have, for reasons not hard to guess, chosen to spare their audiences of the misery! :)

    but how about “before sunrise” (1995) and its recent sequel “before sunset” (2004)?

  4. Luca, given your post it still seems this movie is worth to see, even if it is 2/3rd disappointing. Is that correct?

    The only love stories that I have really liked have been by Wong Kar-Wai and Kieslowski – but I also have to include movies like “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “Queen Margot”.

    (And please let us know about the rest of the movies too.)

  5. Hi Helger,

    I liked the 1966 story very much, but I felt that $11 for 1/3 of a movie was too steep. Other people, by the way, may like the other stories better than I did. The 1911 story, for example, has beautiful photography and an actual plot.

    Unfortunately I am watching no more movies at this film festival.

  6. the american directors are probably wise enough to realize that romance is just a fantasy.

    Exactly. That is why they stick with more real-life stuff such as alien invasions, intergalactic wars, giant gorillas, flying superheroes, wizards, elves, way-too-cool spies, dinosaurs, etc. Of course some of these movies throw in some hard-to-believe romance as well, but come on, we should cut them a little slack.

  7. Your description of the 1966 portion of the movie is not unlike the plot of the 1959 Russian film “Ballad of a Soldier”. Of course 1959 is not exactly recent…

  8. I’ve seen one of Hou-Hsiao Hsien’s earlier movies called “A time to live, and a time to die”, and I higly recommend it. It deals with the director’s own adolescence and family dislocation.

  9. Exactly. That is why they stick with more real-life stuff such as alien invasions, intergalactic wars, giant gorillas, flying superheroes, wizards, elves, way-too-cool spies, dinosaurs, etc. Of course some of these movies throw in some hard-to-believe romance as well, but come on, we should cut them a little slack.

    It seems a little unfair to compare high Chinese cinema to the pandering-to-the-lowest-denominator filth that Hollywood tends to churn out.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s