Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Taiwan. 2004.

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I saw Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Café Lumiere at the 2004 London Film Festival and enjoyed it, without ranking it with his Taiwanese masterpieces like City of Sadness.  On its UK release several months later, however, two or three newspaper reviews dismissed it as “boring”, which so angered me that I went to see it again and enjoyed it even more.  The word “boring” surely applies to those special-effects-laden crash-bang-wallop movies, designed to appeal to juveniles with the attention span of a gnat.

Café Lumiere is billed as a “homage to Yasujiro Ozu” on the centenary of the Japanese master’s birth, and is shot entirely in Japan.  It is not, however, in the style of Ozu, whose films were very carefully composed, so much so that actors complained about having to perform the same tiny action dozens of times before the director was satisfied.  Hou’s film is far more free-wheeling, almost improvised.  Hou’s trademark long takes are much in evidence, something Ozu (unlike his equally great contemporary Mizoguchi) did not go in for.  Also, Hou’s camera is often in graceful motion, while you would be hard put to spot the single camera movement in Tokyo Story.

Otherwise, Café Lumiere might well be described as a Tokyo Story 50 years on, with its lack of any strong plot, its emphasis on family relationships and inability to express feelings, and interest in train travel.  The central character is the young woman Yoko, played wonderfully naturalistically by the pop singer Yo Hitoto in her first film role, and the film simply shows us several days in her life.  Returning from Taiwan while researching a real-life composer, she sees her close platonic friend Hajime who owns a bookshop, spends time in coffee-shops, visits her father and stepmother in the country where she casually announces that she is pregnant, and travels around a lot on trains and trams.  Much of the film is simply real-time observation of these activities, almost documentary style, and the viewer is invited to contemplate this (compare De Sica’s Umberto D, or Rivette’s Secret Defense, which contain similar scenes).  For example, the film’s long second shot consists of Yoko, filmed from behind, hanging up her washing, during which she takes a phone call.  Boring?  Not if you watch the effects of the light coming through the curtains.

The scenes of Yoko with her parents are perhaps most reminiscent of Tokyo Story.  The announcement of her pregnancy appears to strike her father dumb; he is motionless for several minutes, a wonderfully touching scene. 

Trains are even more in evidence than just Yoko’s journeys.  Hajime is obsessed with collecting railway sounds on tape, so he carries a tape recorder around with him on trains and at stations, pointing the microphone towards any new sound. 

One of Ozu’s trademarks was the “pillow-shot”, a linking shot of overhead wires, or washing on the line, or boats chugging along a river, to show that life goes on quite apart from the central characters.  In Café Lumiere, Hou has some wonderful “pillow-shots” of a particular Tokyo location where we see trains moving along in various directions on three separate levels.  Utterly absorbing and contemplative, and those reviewers who think this is “like watching paint dry” should be moved to another job.

Alan Pavelin
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