From the 42nd New York Film Festival: Café Lumiére
Hou Hsiou Hsien captures the past and the present in Café Lumiére, a film shot to honor the centennial anniversary of Japanese filmmaker Ozu Yasujiro. Though not strictly an homage to the director of such films as Late Spring, I Was Born But…, and Tokyo Story, Hou’s film strives to connect Ozu’s “Japan” with that of today, and in its story evokes Hou’s desire as an honorific filmmaker.
Café Lumiére’s dual burden is split between the film’s protagonist Yoko (Hitito Yo) and her friend Hajime (Asano Tadanobu), an owner of a small bookshop. Hajime’s pastime is to travel Tokyo’s serpentine train and subway lines making live audio recordings of the dynamic, found sounds. Yoko is ostensibly working at a career as a writer but more likely is simply a university graduate searching around her for a purpose. She is currently attached to the idea of researching Jiang Ewn-Ye, a Taiwanese pianist who moved to Japan and flourished in popularity and in a number of arts.
Much of Hou’s film follows Yoko with an ethnographic patience as she tracks down the people and places touched by Jiang half a century ago. In-between her research she also meets several times with her father and stepmother, who live outside Tokyo. Yoko travels home to help clean a family grave and quietly discloses to her stepmother that she is pregnant. Her stepmother dotes on her and worries about the baby’s father, who is an unimportant Taiwanese friend of Yoko’s, while her father remains silent with a slight aura of impotence. Yoko expresses the desire to raise the baby herself in Tokyo, and the parents wonder to themselves how she can do it, still living like a college student in the big city, without a husband, and financially dependant on her parents. Back in Tokyo, Yoko finds but the barest remnants of Jiang’s life in the city, his old haunts rebuilt into office buildings and foggy memories barely recalling the famous musician. Instead of these physical connections, Yoko seems to feel Jiang most strongly through recordings of his music and the photographs and poetry of him that his widow shows her.
Hajime and Yoko, are, in essence, stand-ins for Hou’s reverent, slightly bemused picture of Japan. The character of Yoko is the extension of Café Lumiére’s desire to honor Ozu by going back, exploring his life through the kinds of people he dealt with (conservative families dealing with the growing independence of their daughters), and the elucidations of the place and society Ozu recorded on film. Like Ozu, Hou similarly shoots his film with a delicate, placid sense of the ordinariness of life, and the way small things end up speaking greatly for his characters. Hou never assumes Ozu’s highly unique and recognizable formal techniques (though visual homage is apparent), and it is mostly through his respectful observance of Yoko’s everyday life that the filmmaker connects Yoko’s curiosity about the past with Ozu’s narrative and thematic concerns.
Hajime, on the other hand, expresses a desire to record an up-to-the-minute contemporary portrait of urban Japan through technology. In Hajime is seen Hou’s unpretentious desire to leave his native Taiwan for Japan to see how the Tokyo of the 1940s and 1950s has changed, and recording his contrasting, complimentary experience on film. The elegant, poetic focus on Tokyo’s disparate, vaguely intertwined trains are the film’s principle visual motif, as are busy long-shots of street traffic interfering with cinematographer Lee Ping-Bing’s observation of Yoko walking hither and thither. Yoko, in this way, is at once a part of the metropolis around her and lost amongst and within its busyness, her constant train rides revealing both her indecision and uncertainty finding a purpose in adulthood.
Hou portrays with a delicate simplicity the youthful desire to connect to the world around oneself. With Hajime listening to Yoko’s recordings of Jiang, and Yoko not just exploring Hajime’s collage of trains but actually existing as part of his recordings of train-life, the two are able to connect the revered past and the lively present in their simple friendship. In turn, Hou has crafted a beautiful film that gracefully looks back at the work of a master filmmaker while painting a brief, transitory picture of the contemporary world and its uncertainties, in an unexpected, charming way to both reflect on Japan since Ozu left us and the way one reflects on the works of Ozu.