We'll have to wait for the New York Film Festival to see Hou Hsiao-hsien's latest, Three Times, but in the meantime, the great Taiwanese director's exquisitely understated Café Lumiére screens Friday at BAMcinématek (as part of the Voice's "Best of 2004" series) before getting a 10-day theatrical run next week at Anthology Film Archives. Dedicated to Yasujiro Ozu (and commissioned by Ozu's old studio, Shochiku, on the occasion of the Japanese master's centenary), Café Lumiére is, in some ways, Hou's melancholy rumination on the traditional Japanese family that was already in decline a half-century ago, when Ozu made his most celebrated domestic dramas. Hou's movie is introduced with the classic Shochiku logo and begins with a low-angle shot of a streetcar that might have been framed by Ozu. But for all Hou's supposed stylistic and temperamental affinities to Ozu, as well as a few affectionate quotes from Tokyo Story, Café Lumiére is hardly a pastiche.
If anything, Café Lumiére suggests an Ozu film in reverseit's mainly ambience "pillow shots," with bits of narrative serving as punctuation. Back in Tokyo after a stay in Taiwan, Hou's young protagonist Yoko (Japanese pop star Hitoto Yo in her first movie) is subdued and opaque as she reoccupies her microscopic apartment and re-establishes contact with her equally undemonstrative family and friends. No one is particularly voluble; the lengthiest conversations are conducted over the phone. The perverse eloquence of Café Lumiére lies in the way in which most things remain unsaid. Feelings are largely unexpressed, the better to surface in Yoko's dreams. These, it turns out, are largely mediated by Maurice Sendak's Outside Over Therethe tale of a girl who rescues her baby sister from goblinswhich Yoko realizes she read as a child.
Café Lumiére is slow and quiet, with plenty of activities, mainly the eating of meals, that unfold in real timethe rapt attention given Yoko's tempura dinner recalls Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman in its uninflected dailiness. Indeed, the movie is essentially plotless. Like a surrealist heroine, Yoko wanders the city on some mysterious projecttaking photos, asking questions, and looking for vanished landmarks. (Ultimately, it becomes apparent that she is researching the life of Japan-schooled, early-20th-century Chinese composer Jiang Wenye, whose modernist music underscores the action.)
The metropolis may be the real protagonistas though Hou is taking literally the title Tokyo Story. There's a stunningly beautiful composition of Yoko on a train, gazing out the window as the city rushes by, and she passes without seeing her friend Hajime (Tadanobu Asano). A bookstore clerk who is silently in love with Yoko, he rides the trains to gather sounds and images for a computer-based artwork.
Hou lavishes one of his few close-ups on the virtual "womb" of trains that Hajime has constructed on his laptop; despite its cramped spaces, Café Lumiére is filmed almost entirely in middle shot. Hou's discretion would make Ozu seem forward. When Yoko visits her parents' house, the kitchen where her stepmother is shown working is scarcely more than a ribbon running down the center of the screen. And the viewer could easily miss the single sentence, half an hour into the movie, when Yoko informs the older woman that she's pregnant. ("Don't worry, Mom, I won't marry himhe's too close to his mother," she later remarks.)
Although pegged as an author of contemplative mood pieces, Hou's originality as a filmmaker has much to do with both his handling of historical material and his daringly counterintuitive narrative structures. So it is with Café Lumiére, where, as noted by Tony Rayns in a Cinema Scope piece that interestingly cites two longer abandoned versions, the ignorance of history serves as a historical marker and most of the story tumbles out in the movie's final minutes.
Even this small eruption of melodrama is quickly subsumed in Hou's fascination with the metropolis. Yoko is last seen, as spotted by Hajime, sleeping on the train. She is dreaming perhaps that other story, whose secret connections seem to course beneath the reflected city of waking consciousness.
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