Anyone familiar with the films of Hou Hsiao-hsien can detect the influence of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu on his work. The long takes, aesthetic composition, and even Hou's occasional subject matter (family issues, generational conflicts) can all be traced back to the works of the Japanese master. Though Hou has included a direct reference to Ozu (Late Spring is being shown on a television in 1995's Good Men, Good Women), he's only now directed a film that is an acknowledged homage, made to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Ozu's birth. Café Lumière (Hou's first film to be made in Japan), may lack when compared to the sheer perfection of Flowers of Shanghai, but it is a quiet, beautiful, touching film.
The plot (what little there is) concerns Yoko (JPop sensation Yo Hitoto), a writer who is researching materials on real-life Taiwanese composer Jiang Wenye. As the film opens she has just returned from Taiwan, and announces to her father and stepmother that she is pregnant by her Taiwanese boyfriend, whom she has no intention of marrying. Her father, not at all pleased with Yoko's situation, is unable to communicate with her, try as he might. Yoko's good friend Hajime (the very busy Tadanobu Asano), who runs a second hand bookshop and records train sounds in his spare time, is secretly in love with Yoko, but he too is unable to express his feelings.
The family in crisis theme is pure Ozu (Filmbrain was reminded a bit of Tokyo Twilight), and virtually all of his films deal with this in one form or another. Hou, whose films are often very un-Ozu-like in terms of the dramatic conflict, does a wonderful job adopting Ozu's style. The composition of the family scenes, shot at tatami-level from an almost voyeuristic point outside of the room (door frames often take up a portion of the screen), can be found in nearly all of Ozu's films. There's also a tremendous attention to detail, including several items that appear multiple times and in multiple places throughout the film -- clocks, umbrellas, fans, and even milk. There are extensive shots of the complex network of trains that run through Tokyo, and a fair portion of the film is set either on trains or at train stations. (Hajime even creates computer art that envisions him floating inside a womb of trains.) Though Hou doesn't take advantage of 360-degree space within a single scene (as Ozu often did), he does use this, with interesting contextual effect, in two different scenes set in Hajime's bookstore.
Filmbrain was discussing Café Lumière with a fellow film friend (somebody better versed in both directors) who felt that it was neither Ozu- or Hou-esque enough, and the resulting hybrid left him a bit cold. He would have preferred that the film contained more of the trademark elements one usually finds in a Hou film. Though Filmbrain concedes it's not a perfect film, there are some moments of pure poetry that rank up there with Hou's best. In particular, the dinner scene where the father is unable to say a single word to his daughter, and the final ten minutes of the film, which, without a line dialog, speaks volumes about the future of the characters. Perhaps it's best to consider Café Lumière as cinema qua cinema. In that context, it is without a doubt one of this year's best cinematic experiences.
At the moment the film is without distribution, which is a crime. Let's hope that is soon remedied. (Wellspring -- you've bought everything else. . .)
Café Lumière is showing at the NYFF on Saturday, October 16 @ 4:00PM. Filmbrain is giving away two tickets -- they are still available!