When the Taiwanese film Three Times opens, it will mark a significant milestone for Triangle art-film aficionados. It will be the first time a movie by Hou Hsiao-hsien–a director who many critics have long considered one of the most important filmmakers in the world–has had a local theatrical run.

If the name isn’t familiar, that’s hardly a surprise. Although Hou (his surname is pronounced Ho) has been a major presence on the international festival circuit since the 1980s, and a star auteur in France and other countries for well over a decade, only the more recent of his films have acquired any kind of distribution in the United States, and this has been of the minimally funded, lowest-visibility variety.

That commercial obscurity stands in stark contrast to a genuinely imposing reputation. In 1999 when Film Comment asked American critics and film programmers to name the world’s most important filmmaker of the previous decade, Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami was cited most often, but Hou wasn’t far behind.

That double citation was of especial interest to me. Besides having written Film Comment‘s first studies of Kiarostami and Hou in the early ’90s, I had visited both directors on home turf and noted certain similarities between the film scenes of Tehran and Taipei. Rapidly growing metropolises where the traditional, the modern and the postmodern seemed to be colliding at every corner, both cities were far enough from the world media mainstream to allow artists to develop their own very personal and refined styles before meeting international audiences.

It was a fine if rueful irony, however, that the filmmaker from America’s archenemy, Iran, attained visibility in U.S. art houses far more readily than Hou, from friendly Taiwan. Asking why that happened offers a variation on the first thing that many cinephiles might well wonder: If this guy’s so great, why haven’t his films been in circulation?

If I posed that question to critics and others who study the complexities of film distribution, I imagine I’d get different versions of two basic answers.

  1. Hou’s being mostly unknown to U.S. audiences is as if Bergman, Godard or Antonioni had gone unseen in the 1960s. His films represent close to the ultimate in cinematic sophistication of the present era, and because distributors correctly sense that even art-house audiences today are less sophisticated than they were 30 years ago, they haven’t been willing to take a chance on his work.

  • Actually, business reasons are more to blame. Precisely because Hou’s films became so successful in Europe and elsewhere, their producers expected unreasonably large advances from American distributors, who understandably didn’t want to extend themselves financially for an unproved product–a Catch-22 that for years kept his movies out of the U.S. theaters.
  • Though I believe both arguments contain elements of truth, there’s another geopolitical irony to be noted. Beginning in the mid-1980s, all three “corners” of Chinese cinema–the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan–witnessed major, and very distinct, artistic advances. Yet while mainland figures such as Zhang Yimou and Hong Kong directors including Wong Kar-wai became celebrated names in the West, filmmakers from Taiwan–a “free” society with many cultural ties to the United States–had a perplexingly harder time launching from film festivals into theaters.

    And–a final irony–even within the context of Taiwanese cinema, Hou has remained pre-eminent with international critics but found himself entering the U.S. theatrical market on the heels of his great contemporary Edward Yang (Yi Yi) and their younger colleague Tsai Ming-liang (Vive L’Amour, What Time Is it There?).

    The one happy upside to all this is that, though late arriving, Three Times offers an ideal introduction to Hou’s work. In part, that’s because it’s full of his particular stylistic brilliance and thematic fascinations. It’s also because this one movie effectively serves as three Hou films, since it contains three stories that take place in very disparate time periods (though each features actors Chang Chen and Shu Qi).

    In “A Time for Love,” set in 1966, Chang is a young guy headed for his military service who meets a girl (Shu) in a pool hall and offers to write to her. When he returns a few months later and finds her gone, he mounts a search that takes him through numerous villages.

    In “A Time for Freedom,” set in a deluxe brothel in 1911, a diplomat concerned with Taiwan’s subjugation to Japan finds that his progressive social ideas prevent him from taking a favorite courtesan as his concubine. (This episode is mounted like a silent-era film, with intertitles and musical accompaniment.)

    In “A Time for Youth,” set in 2005 Taipei, a spacey female rock singer simultaneously carries on relationships with her artist boyfriend and a clinging girlfriend who threatens suicide if she leaves.

    Perhaps the first thing to note about Three Times is how strikingly terrific its two stars are. Inhabiting roles that span a century, Chang and Shu create characters that prove exceptionally vivid yet extraordinarily different from each other. And this isn’t simply a matter of delineating disparate personalities; the way that each character irreducibly is–in looks, dress, behavior–continually illuminates the periods in which they live, the three times denoted by the title.

    Closely observing these tour de force performances may offer the easiest avenue into the film’s deeper pleasures, because while Hou’s approach to his material is very emotional, it is not conventionally dramatic.

    Rather than hinging on a plot-driven narrative, each story unfolds in a way that’s fragmentary, anecdotal, evanescent. The more we set aside our usual expectations of dramatic cause-and-effect, the more we see that Hou’s meanings are concentrated in discrete moments and the subtlest of gestures–which range from breathtakingly beautiful to heartbreaking.

    In large part, his distinctive style reflects a career-long cultural agenda. Like Kiarostami’s, Hou’s attempt to formulate a cinematic vernacular suited to his own country has involved turning away from Western dramatic models in favor of an approach that honors Eastern traditions in visual art, theater and literature. Additionally, in probing the peculiar nature of Taiwanese identity, he not only repeatedly explores the island nation’s tumultuous history over the last century, but also mulls the influence of three looming presences–China, Japan and the United States (here indicated by its pop music, especially two key songs in the 1966 story).

    Given all this, Three Times offers a characteristically dense weave of the historical and the personal, framed in a way that’s highly allusive yet palpably immediate. And, as with so much Chinese art, its basic elements (the three stories) are perhaps less important individually than in the precise arrangement that Hou gives them.

    Why are the stories out of chronological order? How does each relate to the other? Why do most viewers consider the first episode “the best”?

    While these are questions that every viewer is likely to ponder on leaving the theater, permit me the suggestion that the most satisfying answers might emerge from an approach that merges two complementary angles of view–a yin/yang of the objective and the subjective, if you will.

    In speaking of love, the very “heart” of Taiwanese society, Hou seems to be suggesting that conditions were healthiest in the pivotal ’60s, between the excessive strictures of the early 20th century and the anomie-breeding lack of strictures in the early 21st. Yet that “historical” analysis also reflects a transparently personal bias: Since the first of these tales is autobiographical, it inevitably paints Hou’s own youth in the ’60s as “the best of our times” (the film’s title in Chinese).

    That such issues resonate so profoundly and intriguingly after one leaves the film is but one indication of why Hou has earned worldwide renown as one of contemporary cinema’s greatest masters.

    Three Times was scheduled to open this Friday, but the opening was postponed just before press time. Check our movie section next week for updated movie listings.