Dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Japan/Taiwan, 2003, 103 mins, subtitles
Cast: Yo Hitoto, Tadanobu Asano, Masato Hagiwara, Kimko Yo, Nenji Kobayashi
It’s a hundred years since the birth of the master of Japanese cinema, Yasujiro Ozu, and to celebrate a host of retrospectives and tributes are taking place around the world. Indeed, Tokyo Story, arguably his masterpiece, has just been named the best film of all time by renowned film critic Leslie Halliwell. Not surprisingly, a number of directors are also coming forward with their own cinematic tributes. Abbas Kiarastomi’s Five: Dedicated to Ozu received it’s screening at Cannes, and now we have Café Lumiere from Hou Hsiao-Hsien, a Taiwanese director whose previous body of work has already been likened to Ozu’s.
Café Lumiere is deliberately a loving and referential homage to Ozu’s work. Filming for the first time outside of his native country, Hsiao-Hsien uses a Japanese cast in Japanese locations, aiming to film a Tokyo Story for the 21st Century, portraying the scenes in the manner he believes Ozu himself would have shot them had he been alive today.
The story centres on Yoko (Yo Hitoto), a young journalist researching the life of the real-life Taiwanese musician, Jian Wenye. As with Ozu, the film carefully depicts the realities of urban everyday life, devoid of spectacle but concentrating instead on the routine. However, whereas this is usually associated with gritty drama, here the director finds comfort and serenity, celebrating the ordinary, his long and often silent takes inviting us to take time and really look at the little things that so often pass us by.
Yoko was raised by her uncle in rural Yubari, her parents having divorced when she was young. However, she now enjoys a good relationship with her father and stepmother. But, as in everyone’s life, there are moments that disturb the daily routines and so it is with Yoko when she announces to her family that she is pregnant and has no intention of marrying the father, a former student of hers who now makes umbrellas for a living. One of the underlying themes here is the transition between generations, what seems scandalous to one is less so to the other, exploring the past mingling with the present, and the echo of the future in Yoko’s unborn child. In these scenes, the drama is in the situation itself rather than being highlighted by the performances and the attention is on the relationships between the characters rather than their reactions to the event.
During the course of her research, Yoko makes friends with a bookseller, Hajime (Tadanobu Asano) and together they share many coffees together, talking about very little, or else riding on trains. Hajime likes to record the noise of trains, and passengers. While the two don’t speak whilst he is emersed in his hobby, the comfortable solitude speaks volumes about their relationship, whilst the noise of the trains provides a counterpoint to the tranquil narrative, a sense of the world moving around them. Hajime feels a love towards Yoko but is unable to express it; it doesn’t matter, the subtle interaction between them says it all.
Ultimately, Café Lumiere is a film in which very little happens during life-changing events. The inevitable transition that Yoko finds herself going through is not dramatically signposted but instead we see her adapting to the changes, as everyone does when changes come, and evaluating her life and finding peace and acceptance with what she has.
Hsiao-Hsien wished to capture the “spirituality” of Ozu in his picture, and in that sense he seems to have succeeded. One could argue that the cinematic references to Ozu – the abundance of train and train tracks, the long takes, the device of splitting the screen by way of doorways – are somewhat overt, but overall he has managed to deploy these recognisable Ozu motifs and apply them to a suitably Ozu styled theme and setting, and yet still demonstrate his own skill as a director and filmmaker with a beautifully poetic minimalist and relevant modern tale.