English Title: Café Lumière
Country of Origin: China
Studio: Shochiku, Asahi Shimbunsha, Sumitomo Corporation, Eisei Gekijo, Imagica Corp
Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien
Cinematographer: Mark Lee Ping-bing
Art Director: Toshiharu Aida
Editor: Liao Ching-Song
Runtime: 105 minutes
Yōko is a young Japanese woman researching the life and work of a Taiwanese composer. When not working she spends time with a friend, Hajime, who records the sounds of Japan’s trains and railways and who runs a bookstore. Whilst visiting her parents Yōko tells her mother that she is pregnant by her Taiwanese boyfriend but that she intends to bring up her child by herself, which seems to displease the mother. Later, Yōko tells Hajime a frightening dream she has had and he procures for her a fairy tale that seems to resemble it; and as she conducts further research she feels the effects of her pregnancy. In addition, this matter continues to agonize her parents.
The opening moments of Café Lumière, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s fifteenth feature and first produced entirely outside Taiwan, resound with the quiet, contemplative sensibility that has come to define Hou’s work as thoroughly as that of the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, for whose centenery this project was commissioned (by the major Japanese studio Shochiku). As the gentle rhythms of a small train enter into the soundtrack and a ‘pillow shot’ of the engine crossing the static frame fades langorously in and out, the natural, unforced structure and drama of the ensuing narrative is metonymically established, and Hou’s already well-developed and refined style is subtly modulated to include the paradigm of his forebear: in other words, to encompass the best of two major worlds.
Like his contemporary Edward Yang, Hou has long been an admirer of Ozu (both directors have a great fondness for trains, as almost any single one of their works can attest), and as an adolescent in the years immediately following Japan’s occupation of Taiwan, the new Taiwanese cinema luminary had valuable first-hand experience of Japanese culture. However, Café Lumière is no mere hagiography or imitation. It is a masteful updating of Ozu’s domestic, elliptical narrative focus and methodology, but significantly (and wisely) not his style. At no point does Hou replicate the inimitable surface of an Ozu picture, retaining the long take/long shot, observational style that had by this point become crystalized as a key component of his work with cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing. As in Hou’s follow up, Flight of the Red Balloon (2007), the narrative is almost entirely de-dramatized: the conflict, such as it is, centres upon a young and independent Japanese woman named Yōko (played by singer/songwriter and first time actor Yo Hitoto), who is pregnant by her Taiwanese boyfriend but who is determined to have and raise her child alone. Hou follows this character throughout, avoiding the omniscient narration favoured by Ozu and simply observing his young heroine’s largely uneventful life. The whole thus becomes more like an incitement to drama, a platform for each individual viewer to construct their own narrative, making Café Lumière more than a film; more than cinema: it is a philosophy, a perspective on life itself.
Elsewhere, the clash of generations at the heart of the narrative serves to modernize a typical Ozu plot structure. Here though, unlike Claire Denis’ recent Ozu update 35 Shots of Rum (2008), it is a maternal rather than the generally paternal clash that takes precedence. Indeed, Café Lumière is replete with quietly submissive, even feminized male figures: Yōko’s father remains an impassive presence, and is berated by her mother as such, whilst her boyfriend is, she relates, not a terribly mature or reliable partner. Then there is Hajime, her close friend (played by Japanese superstar Asano Tadanobu); he is a bookstore owner whose passion is recording the sounds of Japan’s railways, and remains a sturdy companion throughout, more like a female friend than a potential partner as one may expect (he in fact seems entirely asexual). Not that Hou offers any judgment on their respective characters; the feeling is very much one of openness to the untold complexities of human beings; and this is precisely what sets the film apart from so many. Ozu once said that to use characters in films is to misuse them, and in this Hou is perfectly in accord with his master.
Author of this review: Adam Bingham