Part career sampler platter and part impromptu tour of ’90s Asian art cinema, director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s new film hopscotches actors Chang Chen and Shu Qi through a trio of time periods and social milieus. The first (and best) vignette, “A Time for Love,” is pure pop narcotic, with Shu’s pool-hall vixen leading Chang on a romantic goose chase set to ’50s jukebox staple “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” So far, so Wong Kar-wai; fans of the latter’s erotic slow burns are in for a wicked secondhand high.
Then the movie rewinds to 1911 (“A Time for Freedom”) and Hou retreads through Flowers of Shanghai territory, right down to the brothel setting, golden hues and historical gravity. Despite archaic touches like gold-leaf intertitles, the filmmaker’s restraint tempers the preciousness. Witness the shot of Shu hanging curtains over her boudoir mirrors, a miniature melodrama that carries more emotional weight than a dozen standard weepies combined.
Alas, there’s also “A Time for Youth,” a lackluster look at a trip-hop chanteuse, chockablock with modern urban ennui and stilted sapphic overtones. Like the filmmaker’s similar Millennium Mambo (2001), the concluding parable contains all the pensiveness of his slow and low style but none of the poetry. Had he limited himself to Two Times, Hou would have had a beautiful pas de deux; instead we get a lopsided triptych that brings the sensuality but only partially satisfies. (Now playing.)—David Fear