By Owen Gleiberman
Updated May 03, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

In the 20 years that they’ve played at festivals, with almost no distribution in the U.S., the films of Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-hsien have evolved from a cult into a conspiracy: Here are movies, say the Hou faithful, so refined and subtle and poetic that the Man won’t even let you see them. Three Times is the second Hou film to receive an American release, and as you watch its trio of linked stories, which feature the same two actors (Shu Qi and Chang Chen) romantically entangled in different periods and settings, you can see why his fans revere him — and also hear why his sensibility is pitched too high even for art-house ears.

The first story, ”A Time for Love,” is by far the best. Set in 1966, it features Chang as a soldier who haunts a billiards parlor, where his courtship of one of the pool-hall girls — Shu, as a sultry stalk of a temptress — blossoms with a modicum of words and gestures. This is a love story in which the chemistry is all there is, and Hou stages it with delicate nostalgia, using the tinkly pop melancholy of Aphrodite’s Child’s 1968 single ”Rain and Tears” to express how love finds its essence in the fear of loss. If every Hou film were this touching, perhaps he wouldn’t be world cinema’s greatest footnote. Yet Three Times is a diminishing achievement: ”A Time for Freedom,” a pseudo-silent set in a brothel in 1911, echoes Hou’s more fascinating (and corrosive) Flowers of Shanghai (1998), and ”A Time for Youth” replays the rudderless lost-generation dithering of Millennium Mambo (2001). Do Hou’s films deserve to be seen? Absolutely, if only to end the myth that they’re too perfect for this world.

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