The term "family film" can scare the hell out of many an art-house regular. Fleeing the stale suburban mindset of studio movies and prime-time TV programs that pander to a lowest common denominator, behind those red velvet curtains we covet a cinematic safe haven, where grittier onscreen fare renders cutesy parents and children personae non gratae. To masterful Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang, however, families provide an endless well of eccentricity, where the ongoing ellipsis of loss and renewal is both haunting and hilarious.

The third installment in a trilogy that began with film-festival favorites The River and Rebels of the Neon God, Tsai's What Time Is It There? announces its wonderfully meditative manner from the very first frame. As the last moments of life tick away for an aging husband and father, it's not his collapse onto the floor or his final gasp for breath that we see. Instead, in one long camera shot, we watch him contentedly puffing away on a cigarette while he waters plants on his patio. We'll learn of his death in the funeral scene to follow, but for now, those fleeting moments of peace create a more priceless vista.

Afterward, the man's wife and son cope with his death by delving into private obsessions. The son, a street vendor, sells a Paris-bound woman his watch and subsequently delves headlong into French culture, guzzling red wine and watching Truffaut videos, seeking passage to the City of Love. Better yet, he begins setting all the clocks in Taipei to Paris time. (Surprisingly, Tsai also portrays the woman after she arrives in Paris. She's just as isolated and alone, yet somehow you know she, too, will be all right.) Meanwhile, his mother remains hopelessly fixated on her husband's pending reincarnation, dressed up for a date that will never arrive.

Lonely as his characters may be, Tsai views their behavior with a contagious affection. It's not that you want these people to suffer, but What Time Is it There? is all about the inherent beauty of their unique coping mechanisms. Watching Tsai's film, you realize most stories about family simply regurgitate truisms, while What Time Is it There? casts each lonely soul as a magical one-time-only attraction. At the same time, restraint is perhaps the film's most important virtue. Tsai doesn't engulf us with one bizarre exploit after another until they blur together, as many of his American counterparts choose to. Instead, the film lingers over each episode in dreamily long takes, a contemplative silence making each line of dialogue an event rather than an obligation. Tsai's work is like haiku in a world of limericks.

What Time Is it There?

Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave., 223-4515. 9 pm Friday- Thursday, March 8-14. Also 4 pm Saturday- Sunday.