April 30, 2015
Café Lumiere – Taiwan, 2003
Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s 2003 film Café Lumiere is an homage to the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. The film opens with the familiar image of snow-capped mountains that viewers of Ozu’s films will recall immediately, and in the film’s early moments, we see an image that appears frequently in Ozu’s films – the train, that symbol of modern life moving on despite life’s everyday hiccups. Later Hou presents a scene inside a family home, and we see Ozu’s familiar furniture arrangement and recognize his lower-than-usual camera angle. In fact, I half expected to see Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara walk in. The plot of Café Lumiere is also reminiscent of many of Ozu’s films, for it revolves around a family that has grown apart and is set in a time when parents have no more wisdom to impart to their children. However, it is hard for me to imagine Ozu ever being as opaque about what is going on as Hou is.
The central character in the film is Yoko Inoue (Yo Hitoto), a headstrong and independent young woman who is simultaneously aimless. She seems somewhat caught between the past and present, wanting the freedom that comes with living in the big city and being unencumbered by restrictions while also holding firmly to the past. In many ways, she is like the characters played by Hara and other young women in Ozu’s films. She is polite, yet not quite as open as she could be, and her actions indicate that she values politeness and reciprocity. Where she differs most from one of Ozu’s traditional heroines is in her assertiveness. This is a woman who travels on her own, picks her own boyfriends, and does not adhere to traditional thoughts on sex. And yet even here, she wavers slightly. When told that a woman directly asked a male friend of hers to be her boyfriend, she is immediately suspicious of her motives. It seems that her views on female independence and directness do not extend as far as they could.
The film’s other central character is Hajime (Tadanobu Asano), the owner of a small bookstore. Hajime doesn’t do much in the film other than interpret Yoko’s dreams and help her find locations associated with Jiang Wen-ya, a Taiwanese classical musician who lived in Japan for most of his life. Yoko even interviews his widow, although it is unclear what exactly she gets out of that event. Hajime is also in the habit of recording the sounds of trains, and he enjoys doing it so much that he often closes his bookstore and just rides around all day with his recording equipment. What it all means, I am not sure. There is both a poetic beauty about his actions that I think Ozu would have enjoyed and a murkiness that he might not have. Ozu left many things unsaid outright in his films, yet very little was indecipherable.
So little “happens” in Hou’s film that I fear I may have given away too much already. There is a central conflict in the film, and the fact that it is not resolved speaks volumes about the differences between the times in which Ozu’s films took place and the present day. In one key scene, Yoko’s stepmother implores her husband to stop being evasive and to talk to his daughter about it, yet even when the conversation is finally broached, there he sits passively silent. Perhaps he has no more advice to give to a member of a generation he clearly can’t understand. There’s also a nice scene in which Yoko and her stepmother visit Yoko’s landlady both to thank her for helping Yoko as much as she does and to borrow some sake. I found the stepmother’s sense of shame in this scene to be particularly telling. After all, was there ever a scene in one of Ozu’s films in which sake wasn’t readily available whenever someone asked for it?
As much as I can appreciate Hou’s efforts here, I have a hard time recommending the film. It is somewhat satisfying as a tribute to a man Hou obviously has great respect for, yet the film is ultimately unsatisfying by itself. Each character is well crafted and somewhat intriguing, yet their eccentricities have little purpose, and the mental effort required to assemble the film’s bits and pieces into a coherent character study produces little in the way of payoff. Is the film trying to say that Japan’s youth are lost and lack the hopes and dreams of their parents’ generation, or is it saying that they are stuck between the strong sense of collectiveness that has held Japan together over time and the modern pull of individualism that gives priority to the individual? I honestly cannot say. Both Yoko and Hajime appear to be looking back and cutting off the future, but to what end?
There will undoubtedly be some viewers who see in Café Lumiere a powerful statement about present-day Japan, and they will read a lot into the film’s many quiet moments and into the characters’ apparent need for repetition and familiarity. They may be correct. However, audiences that reach those conclusions are likely responding to concepts that they went into the film with and not revelations brought on by the film. In other words, the film will have reconfirmed what they already thought. A good film should not require this, however. Audiences should be able to read the director’s purpose through the images that he or she presents on the silver screen and not understand a film exclusively through their own experiences or pre-conceived notions. Many of Hou’s most ardent supports will likely say that I just didn’t get the film. Well, they’re right. I didn’t. (on DVD)
2 and a half stars
*Café Lumiere is in Japanese with English subtitles.