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Three Times: Temporal Poetics of Hou Hsiao-hsien

November 10, 2009 | By

Film critics often divide Hou’s oeuvre into three phases that are characterized by different approaches to filmmaking.


Introduction: The Films and Times of Hou Hsiao-hsien

Celebrated Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien has the reputation of being one of contemporary cinema’s most brilliant auteur. Spanning over two decades now, his cinematic oeuvre is distinguished by its complex engagement with Taiwan’s tortured twentieth century history. His famed long-take observational aesthetics -their functional minimalism camouflaging ornate detailing – has garnered favourable comparison with past masters like Antonioni, Bresson, Ozu et al. Before reviewing Hou’s latest Taiwanese film1 Three Times (released in 2005), a short introduction to his work is necessary. Film critics often divide Hou’s oeuvre into three phases that are characterized by different approaches to filmmaking.


Three Times— Temporal poetics of Hou Hsiao-hsien

Early in his career, during state sponsored revival of a ‘national’ film culture, Hou like other New Taiwanese filmmakers was strongly inspired by Italian neo-realism of postwar eras, his films The Boys from Fengkuei, A Summer at Grandpa’s, The Time to Live and the Time to Die and Dust in the Wind combined autobiographical subject matter with a ‘realist’ aesthetic characterized by on location shooting, use of non-actors and dialogues in regional dialects.

The ‘break’ came with A City of Sadness. Released in the year of Tiananmen Square massacre, it dealt with one of the most traumatic events of post-war Taiwanese history, the 1947 massacre in Taipei of thousands of civilians at the hands of recently arrived Kuomintang soldiers from Chinese mainland. But instead of giving a panoramic view of the events (even the massacre takes place off-screen), Hou concentrated on a particular family’s tryst with the tragedy. The film went on to win Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival and became, arguably, the best known Taiwanese film abroad. But at home, a group of critics severely criticized the film, bringing out a book entitled Death of the New Cinema in 1992 that squarely blamed Hou’s aesthetic formalism for blunting political edge of the film’s subject2.

It could be argued that the critics’ negative appraisal of A City of Sadness betrays their unwillingness or inability to recognize Hou’s underlying project of not just challenging official ‘history’ (the government prohibited public discussion on the subject and made a formal apology as late as 19953) but more radically, questioning the Nationalist project of producing history. His next two films were continuations of this project, The Puppetmaster which depicted five decades of Japanese colonial rule from 1895 to 1945 through the prism of amateur actor Li Tien-lu’s memoirs and Good Men, Good women which re-examined the fate of Taiwan’s leftist intellectuals in the war and post-war years, forming a ‘historical’ trilogy with A City of Sadness. It became apparent from these films that Hou’s interest was less in questioning official historical narrative, and more on the discursive limits such narratives pre-suppose and impose. It should to be noted – Hou approaches ‘history’ not as a realm of ‘factual’ records, where, disentangling ‘fact’ from ‘fiction’ would bring out the ‘hidden’ truth of events – his emphasis is rather on the historical4 (in the Hideggerean sense of the term) dimension, pertaining to what happens, how events get inscribed on people’s body and mind, and how they are preserved or forgotten, yet retaining their force in the present.

Lately, Hou’s films have moved onto a territory – urban youth culture, which is more often associated with his much esteemed contemporary – Edward Yang and the younger Tsai Min Liang. Millenium Mumbo (2001), set in first year of the new millennium is ingeniously narrated by lead character Vicky’s voiceover – looking back at her life – from ten years in the future. Swinging between two lovers, her party hopping existence is caught at a moment of (seemingly) timeless youth; in this film Hou introduced a new and almost idiosyncratic style, crafting a fragmentary and excessively minimalist narrative of contemporary aimless urban youth – high on libidinal energy, living on a perpetual ‘now’ without past or future. In a different vein, Café Lumiere (2003) (commissioned by Japanese studio Shochiku) designed as homage to Yasujiro Ozu (especially his 1953 classic Tokyo Story) depicts the life of a semi-independent Japanese woman in contemporary Tokyo.

Hou’s next film, Three Time in a way brings together different phases of his past cinematic practice. The film is divided into three segments, each set at different points in Taiwan’s past and present – the first entitled A time for Love recalls Hou’s pre- A City of Sadness period (especially Dust in the Wind); second – A time for Freedom bears close relation to Flowers of Shanghai and is also reminiscent of his ‘historical trilogy’, the third segment, A time for Youth continues Hou’s recent preoccupation with urban youth culture. Each segment deals with characters in love at crossroads of their lives; significantly, the cast is repeated as Taiwanese stars Shu Qi and Chang Chen play the lead pair in all three shorts (both delivering brilliant performance in each of them). This is not done in order to suggest actual or even symbolic reincarnation; rather, it is just one among other repetitions woven into the short’s individual and collective fabric. What follows, is exploration of each short – in some details – and an attempt at grasping the effect produced by the film in its totality.


A Time for Love

Opening shot: camera focuses on a tin lampshade for a few seconds, time enough for the superimposed caption entitled ‘1966 Koushiang’ to register time and place of the narrative, then moves down to slim face of a young woman, lingering on her charming pout, following her flirtatious gaze to the figure of a youth bent over a pool table taking aim; while on soundtrack – The Platters playing ‘Smoke gets in your eyes’. There is not much of a plot to speak of, Chen (Chang Chen) gives Haruko – a girl working at the pool hall he frequents – a love letter before rushing off to home. When he comes back Haruko is gone and there is a new girl May (Shu Qi) in her place; predictably he falls for her in the course of an evening, but has to leave again, this time for military service. He writes to her though, and presumably gets a reply. But, by the time Chen is back in town (on a day’s leave) May has left for another pool hall. Boy chases girl from one town to another, visiting pool halls and in desperation even her home, finally tracking her down in Huwei. Their time together is short since he has to report back to base camp next morning. In the final scene, as they are waiting for Chan’s train in the rain, a close up shot focuses on their hands slowly drawing near, palms touching, the impossible longing of fingers intertwining, while on soundtrack Aphrodite’s Childs’ old pop tune ‘Rain and Tears’ plays on.


Three Times— Temporal poetics of Hou Hsiao-hsien

The minimalism of plot and dialog is overwritten by intricate detailing of each frame. Densely packed mis en scenes provide spatio-temporal grounding of the short, from May’s fancy looking skirts and blouses to her hairstyle, Chang’s cool look in short sleeved shirt to military cropped hair, the pool hall with its Japanese styled sliding doors, the railway time table with timings printed in English, and especially the English pop songs in soundtrack, each sign refers to the rapid Americanization of Taiwan in wake of domestic economic boom and participation in Vietnam War as a short-term military base for US troops. For all its cultural specificity, the film also captures a quintessentially idyllic 60’s moment when love-sex-mass culture ‘arrived’ for many urban youths throughout the world. Hou’s detached observational style never betrays any overt desire to pass judgment on the rapid social changes of that period; rather, there is a whiff of barely discernable nostalgia, enmeshed in each minute detail.

What captures and mobilizes these graphic and aural elements is camera movement. But this movement is temporal and not spatial, for even when camera glides in space it marks duration and tempo – framing images – which (following Deleuze) one is tempted to describe as ‘a little time in the pure state’5, in short, ‘time-image’. Critics have found in Hou’s filmmaking practice abundant traces of what Deleuze theorized as ‘time-image’. That is not to say Hou uses previously developed filmic-concepts or styles (for example by Ozu), there are and can be various types of time-image, as Three Times finely shows6.

‘A time for love’ focuses on time at its moment of flight. The characters are always on the move, their scant dialogs revolve around time limits – ‘When do you get off?’ , ‘when are you due back in base?’, they look at railway time tables, both letters mention ‘time flies..’. More so stylistically, the camera repeatedly focuses on the fleeting instant: lingering on Chan’s cigarette smoke, rippling sea waves, rotating bicycle wheel, smoke drifting from Chan and May’s meal.  Smoke, waves, smiles, glances – a series of signs referring to drift, marking a temporal plane of emanation; ‘Evaporation’ is emblematic of this time-image, evaporative surface revealing hidden surfaces, repetitive, similar, yet not the same. Mapping lines of flight to the ‘end’ is unimportant, there is no sub-text of escape or release from everyday banality, a fact reflected by camera’s utter indifference in reaching destinations – home, army barrack, new pool hall etc. Neither beginning nor end, camera follows the middle, images it creates are of the milieu, the in-between. Whenever Chang visits the pool hall he is in a hurry to leave, whereas for May pool halls are not sedentary zones external to journey but firmly internal to travel, whether pool halls come in-between journey or journey comes in-between pool halls is impossible to tell. This constant movement imparts A time for Love with an endearing lightheartedness, in tune with cinematic-images (past and present) that celebrate the romance of nineteen sixties.

A Time for Freedom

‘A time for freedom’, the middle part of Three Times is set in the year 1911, the action taking place in a ‘Flower House’ – expensive brothel – situated in Dadaocheng, Taiwan. This segment is shot in silent film format (though having occasional diegetic music and soundtrack) with dialogs displayed in intertitles. The narrative revolves around an unnamed courtesan (played by Shu Qi) and her writer cum political activist client Mr. Chang (Chang Chen). On facilitating the marriage of a younger colleague by enlisting Mr.Chang’s financial support (he chips in money to compensate the release amount demanded by the brothel’s proprietress from her future husband’s family) the courtesan begins to long for freedom herself. But her lover is married and does not approve of the practice of concubinage. Moreover, he is busy working towards liberating Taiwan from Japanese rule. Freedom is the apt metaphor of this segment; while Mr.Chang, the reluctant lover, dreams of Taiwan’s independence, the courtesan desires release from life inside a gilded cage. Tellingly, all their conversations revolve around – not love – but internal affairs of the flower brothel and wider politics of the country.

Three Times— Temporal poetics of Hou Hsiao-hsien

Like Hou’s earlier film Flower’s of Shanghai (1998) this segment stunningly re-creates the interior of an elegant pleasure house, portraying with meticulous details the dresses, hairstyle, manners and gestures of its residents and customers. Yet paradoxically (it may appear at first) the film’s mis en scenes are strictly minimalist, which can perhaps be attributed to Hou’s aspiration of avoiding the trap of exoticization.  Ozu’s influence is conspicuous in depiction of interior spaces, especially the ‘still life’ shots that frame various objects like lamp, teacup, flowers;  but there are significant differences from the Japanese master’s famed aesthetics, notably, the camera’s willingness to move rather than remain fixed for long durations.

Parallel to superimposed captions signifying passage of chronological time, Hou uses cuts of various durations – in form of slow fade in and fade out – thereby suggesting subjective passage of time and its difference from objective time-markers. In crafting two different registers of temporality – chronological and subjective – Hou is able to bring out (cinematically) the dialectic of time inherent in his narrative: on one side, the courtesan’s crystallized time of waiting inside a static ‘interior’ space; on the other, glimpses of an ‘external’ time occasioned by Mr. Chang’s repeated arrivals and departures. In the end, Mr. Chang (in the aftermath of Wuchang Uprising) gets more involved with independence movement – shuffling from Japan to China – while the courtesan pines inside the brothel. In A Time for Freedom Hou depicts with profound sensitivity the pressure of ‘history’ on characters at fringes of its grand narrative.

A Time for Youth

Traveling shot: A girl seated at back of a racing motorbike -her face bathed in tears – hugging the driver tightly; bike stops and the man asks if she is ‘Okay’, she only nods (in between spasms) and they move on. From the first frame of this concluding segment, titled ‘A time for Youth’, a brooding despair saturates the grey cityscape of present day Taipei. It documents, with deceptive idiosyncrasy, some moments in the life of singer Jiang (Shu Qi), her estranged girlfriend and photographer Zhen (Chang Chen). The minimally sketched plot runs like this: Jinag is having a secret affair (lying constantly to her girlfriend) with Zhen, the girlfriend suspects something and keeps on complaining – to which Jiang’s response is one of cool indifference. Fed up, she (the girlfirend) threatens suicide and in all probability – towards the end of the film – throws herself down from Jiang’s balcony (whether it actually occurs or not is left ambiguous).

In addition to bleak colours, the short’s lighting is (almost) uniformly dark. This produces some hypnotic shots, especially the one where Jiang gazes – with hand held neon light – at photographs pasted on a wall inside Zhen’s crammed flat; smoke drifts from her cigarette, her hair lie tussled on her shoulders from furtive lovemaking. Predictably, technologies of communication (cell phones, internet) saturate their lives, yet, their communicative function is shown to be suspect in a milieu where ‘wo/man is an island’ seems to be the unsaid motto. Jiang’s cell phone is perpetually either on silent mode or off – missed call notifications and text messages bounce on its screen incessantly – unanswered. Depicting a time from which temporality has been subtracted; quotidian objects and acts are stripped of ritualistic or playful connotations (that embellished previous shorts), rather their strictly ‘functional’ nature (even whose functionality is suspect) betrays a mournful impoverishment of communicability.

Though reminiscent of Millenium Mumbo for its dissection of lives of urban twenty-something’s, A Time for Youth has neither the romantic feel nor the nostalgic tone of the former. Here, aimlessness is not a prelude to some (possible) better understanding of oneself, rootless ness, not a lead up to search for roots. A line from Jiang’s Blog sums up the predominant mood – ‘no past, no future, just a hungry present’. From the same source we learn – as a result of premature birth – she has fractured bones, a hole in her heart and epilepsy, being almost blind in her right eye. Hidden bellow the surface of a seemingly straightforward chronological narrative, Hou deftly inserts details that link up on careful viewing, to create temporal dissonance. Like this sequence: Jiang regards Zhen from close up, covering her right eye with a palm, before initiating a mute game of kissing. The shot holds no narrative significance until we come to know (later) of her near blindness. Again, when the camera assumes Jiang’s viewpoint while reading the girl’s typed suicide note on computer screen, the right edge of letters get blurred. This is Hou’s hallmark, inserting kernels of information that may not be discernible on first viewing, but in retrospect link up to produce new understandings. This is also what makes (over-hasty) dismissal of the short’s disparaging depiction of modernity – as yet another didactic take on ‘urban alienation’ – impossible. Rather, the viewer is invited to re-view the film, with more care to details.


In-between Times

Repetition changes nothing in the object repeated, but does change something in the mind which contemplates it7

One of the primary questions that may arise after watching Three Times is: What effect is expected to be achieved by putting together three – ostensibly unrelated – narratives in one film? The possible answers are complex and would require scope which is beyond that of the current review. Yet, the contours of a later project (of detailed engagement with thoughts underpinning the film) can be sketched. Hidden inside the first query rests a deeper question – What is the role of ‘time’ and temporality in this film?


Three Times— Temporal poetics of Hou Hsiao-hsien

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Three Times is the observational style with which, not only gestures and expressions of characters are framed, but also, objects are captured. At times, shots consign a pseudo-autonomous existence to objects filmed– for example, the focus on gliding snooker balls (in A Time for Love) or the repeated image of a door-side lantern being lightened (in A Time for Freedom) – as if the geometric pattern they embody form subjects in themselves. What is inscribed on the bodies of objects (including dresses and hairstyles) is the signature of time. This forms one of the two poles of the film’s engagement with temporality. The other pole is shaped by the camera’s close attention to quotidian activities, and though their immediate narrative function may seem questionable, the form of (their) representation produces a sense of rhythm in tune with “real-time behavioral processes.”8

Hou repeats similar compositions inside as well as in-between the three shorts, and in doing so produces an index of associations. Depiction of minor repetitions – like opening and closing doors, dusting snooker table, journeys on boat (first short); washing and wiping of hands, drinking tea, dressing in front of mirror (second short); racing motorbike through free-ways (third short); letters/e-mail/text, bulb/lantern/neon light (producing series between shorts) – can be read as alluding to a radical idea of repetition and temporality9 (that gets manifest through repetition). The characters inside each short are devoid of memory or fore-sight (logically so) that would enable them to glimpse beyond the frame of their existence. It is the viewer who has access to all the three segments. Thus, what gets repeated is never the same (from the audience’s viewpoint) since ‘one can speak of repetition only by virtue of the change or difference that the mind draws from repetition.’10 Three times, among other things is an attempt at mapping time’s pressure – through repeating repetition – on individual and societal body.

 Notes & References

  1. Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s latest film Le voyage du ballon rouge (released in 2007) – made in French and set in Paris – marks the director’s first European venture.
  2. For greater overview and analysis of the controversy see: Cinemaspace. Accessed June 20th, 2009.
    Web :
  3. Wikipedia article on ‘28 Incident’. Accessed June 20th, 2009.
  4. ‘History, historical, historicality (Geschichte and its derivatives): These terms refer to Dasein’s historical character, that is, that Dasein is not only “spread out in time,” but also lives as conditioned by who it has been.’
  5. See, Some Terminology in Being and Time. Accessed June 20th, 2009.
  6. Deleuze, Gilles, Cinema 2 : The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson & Robert Galeta, The Athlone Press, London, 2000, p xi
  7. For a detailed analysis of the aesthetics of Three Times (containing discussion on time-image and its relation to Hou’s style) see: Warner,Charles, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Optics of Ephemerality, Sense of Cinema. Accessed June 20th, 2009. Web:
  8. This quote is by David Hume, as cited in, Deleuze, Gilles, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton, Columbia University Press, New York, 1994, p 70.
  9. Quoted in, Philip Lopate, A Deeper Shot: Introducing Hou Hsiao-hsien Cinema Scope 3 (2000),p 27, cited by Warner,Charles, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Optics of Ephemerality.
  10. My ideas on temporality and repetition – throughout this article – have been influenced by Sukanya Sarbadhikary’s brilliant research paper Repetition: Is it chasing, dragging, simply having fun, or nothing at all? (RTP term end paper CSSSC )
  11. Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, p 73.
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Sayam Ghosh works in software industry for a living; likes spending his spare time reading, playing sarod, watching films, travelling and (occasionally ) cooking.
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