Movie Review
Café Lumiere


Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien
Cast: Yo Hitoto, Tadonobu Asano, Kimiko Yo, Nenji Kobayashi

could watch Hou Hsiao-hsien movies all day long.

I can't think of another filmmaker working today whose films feel more legitimately lived-in. The people, the spaces, the sounds: it all feels so uncannily familiar. I've never visited Taipei or Shanghai or, in the case of Café Lumiere, Tokyo, but Hou's work makes me feel as if I have. This might seem something of an odd comment on a body of work that's light-years from what we typically refer to as "escapism," but, really, it speaks volumes of the sheer, exquisite mastery of Hou's mise-en-scene.

At this point, he seems so utterly comfortable with his aesthetic that he could toss off a masterpiece with his eyes wide shut. And this isn't to say that Hou's too obstinate to stray from the familiar: The Puppetmaster, Flowers of Shanghai, and Café Lumiere are as impressively varied as, say, 2001, Barry Lyndon, and The Shining. In fact, he’s confident enough in what he’s doing that he can pay clear homage to one of cinema's most distinctive stylists and still end up with a film that's unmistakably his own--and a vital addition to his filmography, at that. Café Lumiere is neither Hou’s latest (his Three Times premiered at Cannes earlier this summer and will debut Stateside a few months from now at the New York Film Festival, but probably won’t screen commercially until at least next year) nor his greatest (Flowers of Shanghai gets my vote), but it’s a great, new Hou Hsiao-hsien film, which is cause for celebration.

Oh, just spring for an IPod already...

From day one, much of the discussion around the project has tended to focus on the fact that Hou crafted the film as a loving tribute to Ozu, in honor of the late Japanese master's 100th birthday. While the nods to Ozu, both in form and content, are indeed present and an integral aspect of the film, it's ultimately no more Tokyo Story than Rosetta is Mouchette. (J. Hoberman acutely suggests that Café Lumiere constitutes “an Ozu film in reverse.”) It's a decidedly low-key effort (even for Hou), but if it plays as (deceptively) minor, it's only in relation to an oeuvre as accomplished as any in cinema's past quarter-century.

Though Hou's approach is radically different from that of Wong Kar-wai, he's no less attuned to the subtleties of sublimated emotion. (Interestingly, Hou appeared to effectively “sample” Wong’s voice-over-narration-over-mood-music-and-slo-mo technique in his last outing, the underappreciated Millennium Mambo, while Wong himself is off testing the outer limits of romantic fetishization.) Hou's frequent use of static (or semi-static) medium shots with offscreen dialogue seems his way of suggesting his broader intentions. One such perfectly realized moment in Cafe Lumiere plants its gaze on a cat curiously investigating an empty room as Yoko, Hou's heroine, and her stepmother converse outside the frame. If you're paying attention purely to what's happening on screen, Cafe Lumiere will inevitably seem half-formed and woefully inadequate. But as with virtually all of Hou's work (and, for that matter, Ozu's), beneath its modest, minimalist veneer lie riches untapped by more compromising film artists.

"Dear Penthouse: I never thought any of your letters were actually true..."

The film focuses on the platonic relationship between Yoko (Japanese pop singer Yo Hitoto, magnetic in her screen debut), a young, single writer and Hajime (Japanese actor-du-jour Tadanobu Asano), the proprietor of the titular secondhand bookstore. Yoko has just returned from (Hou’s native) Taiwan, and is pregnant by her boyfriend there, whom she has decided she will not marry. She spends much of her time researching the Chinese composer Jiang Wenye (whose music functions as Hou’s soundtrack); Hajime spends his working on an online project that involves recording the sounds of the Tokyo transit system. He’s in love with her, but is too cautious and shy to express his feelings.

In a lesser film, Hajime’s unrequited affection for the expecting Yoko would no doubt play front-and-center, and arrive eventually at its pat solution--almost certainly involving a proposal of marriage or, perhaps, Hajime whispering sweet, inaudible nothings in Yoko’s ear. In Wong’s cine-universe, such a premise would prove ripe for tragedy. But Hou’s touch is so light, so assured and sensitive, that we instead sense his characters’ emotions suppressed below the film’s mannered surface, bubbling up in small, seemingly quotidian moments and never quite taking shape. We’ve all been there: Unsure of whether our feelings are mutual, and wary of jeopardizing a valued friendship, we opt, painfully, to keep our mouth shut and play it cool. In his own delicately formalist way, Hou perfectly captures the quiet, guarded longing of being hopelessly in love with a close friend.

By: Josh Timmermann
Comments (0)
  all content copyright 2001-2005