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Review: Three Times

Three Times, from director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, is a sublime triptych of love stories. Each set in a different era in Taiwan's history, the unrelated shorts offer melancholy ruminations on love and female identity in the modern day. Use of the same actors, Chang Chien and Shu Qi, for the leads in all three tales, serves to stress the timeless nature of humankind's quest for love.

"A Time for Love" is the first of the trio. Set in 1966 Taiwan, it follows the courtship of a pool-hall girl (Qi) by a conscripted soldier (Chien). Flirtation simmers beneath the surface, hidden from the anxious gaze of viewers seeking overt demonstrations of affection. The couple's tender reticence charms, but audiences unfamiliar with Asian social codes may feel something is amiss. The opening story sparkles in its timid conclusion, leaving quiet bliss in its wake.

The second short, "A Time for Freedom", takes place during the Japanese occupation in Taiwan and tells the tragic tale of a courtesan who pines for a better life. The entire piece is silent, save the protagonist's mournful song, and dialogue is expressed solely through intertitles. A sense of hopelessness permeates this short, and the heart aches as Qi's character wails her dirge in the final shot, surrendering to her forlorn fate. The tragedy overwhelms, and abatement of breath does not come until the final story is well underway and the viewer is forced to sever ties, if only temporarily, with the residual sense of grief in order to focus on the third saga.

"A Time for Youth", the closing short, set in modern day Taipei, documents the turbulent lives of the young, urban and promiscuous. Technology takes centre stage as text messaging and online chatting simultaneously connect and alienate lonesome souls in the big city. The female character here has far greater freedom of expression, sexual and otherwise, vis-Ã -vis her counterparts in the previous shorts. It slowly becomes apparent, however, that such liberty can be debilitating. The third film explores how a generation's disillusionment with love and morality shapes its interactions with one another.

The fragile romances at the heart of each short are seemingly tenuous in depth, a reminder that conceptions of love are ever-changing, whittled and revised by the conventions and circumstances of the time in which they emerge. Hou captivates with his lingering shots and minimalist direction, distilling each short to its bare essence. The poignant result haunts long after the 139-minute run time.

Three Times premiered at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. It has since screened at various festivals worldwide, including last year's Toronto International Film Festival. It is now playing at Cumberland Theatre (159 Cumberland, at Avenue) every day at 1:15pm, 4:10pm, 7:15pm and 10:15pm.

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