Dedicated to Yasujiro Ozu, Café Lumiére is, in some ways, Hou Hsiao-hsien’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. 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 reverse—it’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 There—the tale of a girl who rescues her baby sister from goblins—which Yoko realizes she read as a child.
The movie is essentially plotless. Like a surrealist heroine, Yoko wanders the city on some mysterious project—taking photos, asking questions, and looking for vanished landmarks. The metropolis may be the real protagonist—as though Hou is taking literally the title Tokyo Story. Hou’s discretion would make Ozu seem forward—the viewer could easily miss the single sentence, half an hour into the movie, when Yoko informs her mother that she’s pregnant. Even this small eruption of melodrama is quickly subsumed in Hou’s fascination with the metropolis. Yoko is last seen sleeping on the train. She is dreaming perhaps that other story, whose secret connections seem to course beneath the reflected city of waking consciousness.