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Friday, July 14, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Passionate trilogy illuminates aspects of love

Seattle Times movie critic

A young woman, alone in a modest pool hall in 1966 Taiwan, reads a letter from a love-struck young soldier. "The days I have spent around here," he writes of the pool hall, "have been the happiest of all." The room is still; the woman is lovely, with long hair and a serene, unruffled demeanor. She puts the letter away, but it remains with her, perfuming the quiet air.

This is "A Time for Love," the first of three stories told in Hou Hsiao-Hsien's romantic drama "Three Times," and it's intoxicating. The filmmaker creates a mood in which everything — the dryness of chalk, the brightness of the sunbeams on the street outside, the notes of a soulful rendition of "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" — seems heightened, as things do when we are in love. The couple, played by Shu Qi and Chang Chen (who star in all three stories), eventually reunite; the camera lingers on a hand slowly reaching out to hold another, on a moment in the rain with a shared umbrella. As in Wong Kar-wai's glorious "In the Mood for Love," which has a mood of aching yearning similar to this, little happens — but everything happens.

Movie review

Showtimes and trailer 3.5 stars

"Three Times," with Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Mei-fang, Di-Mei, Liao Su-Jen. Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, from a screenplay by Chu Tien-Wen.135 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. In Mandarin and Taiwanese dialect with English subtitles. Northwest Film Forum, through Thursday.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien is a revered filmmaker in Taiwan whose work rarely gets screened in the U.S., outside of film festivals. (He's been regularly shown in recent years at the Seattle International Film Festival, where "Three Times" was seen last month.) This film, which is getting a national release from IFC Films, should raise his U.S. profile, and deservedly so; it's a lovely, unique piece of cinema, marred only by the fact that the first story is so luminous, the second two seem a bit diminished by comparison.

The three love stories, each involving a crucial letter (or, in the case of the sole contemporary story, a text message), all look completely different. "A Time for Freedom," the middle story, is told in the style of classic silent film — if silent film had warm colors and luscious light. Set in 1911, it tells of a courtesan in love with a married diplomat; he, because of his principles, cannot return her feelings. The dialogue is conveyed by title cards, and the action is slow, while passionate music plays. When the courtesan sings a traditional song, it's like a cry of pain; love, here, is a prison.

"A Time for Youth," the final tale, has an urban jangle to it; its Taipei is all gray concrete and blue light (which matches the cigarette smoke that curls around its characters). A pop singer, entangled with both her female partner and a new male lover, stares into the night; she's troubled and damaged, and you sense that neither person gives her what she wants. In Shu Qi's sad eyes, we see a woman almost shut down, and yet hope remains. "Three Times" is an emotional journey, a showcase for two fine actors, and a multifaceted picture of love.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725

or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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