There's a perfectly pitched love story in the first segment of Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times. It's made of flimsy stuff—glances and cigarette smoke, suppressed smiles and the clunk of billiard balls—and then it spirals into a quiet euphoria no Hollywood movie would bother to attempt.

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Shu Qi, the gorgeous actress from Hou's Millennium Mambo, looks awkward all dolled up in '60s blouses with puffy sleeves. Still, she's never been so charming. She's a billiard-room attendant in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, and Chang Chen is a billiard player. He falls for her like he fell for the last girl who worked there—nothing special, just another declaration of undying love before a stint in the army. Something about her girlish mien (or the rapturous American pop songs they used to listen to) stays with him, and he uses up every minute of his leave seeking her out.

In the next segment, it's 1911, and Shu is a courtesan in a Dadaocheng brothel. Chang is her admirer, a journalist who loves her company but is opposed to the practice of taking concubines. The setting evokes Hou's masterpiece Flowers of Shanghai, but instead of languor and cloistered light, he gives us melodrama. And worse: This segment is silent, and Hou makes no accommodations for the genre. The dialogue is talky, the acting minimalist. It's totally alienating. The last segment is set in 2005, with Shu and Chang as clandestine lovers in a hedonistic party straight out of Millennium Mambo. It's not bad, if overwrought. But even these uneven segments have a purpose, which is to make us share Hou's nostalgia for the first enchantments of 1966.