Café Lumière by Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Review)

What I realized most watching Café Lumière was just how well Hou captures the inherent mystery of individual human beings.
Café Lumière

Have you ever been walking down the street, riding the bus, or sitting by a window in a restaurant, when all of sudden, for some inexplicable reason, a stranger catches your eye? Not necessarily because of how attractive he or she is or how the person’s dressed or some other “concrete” reason but, presumably, simply because it’s another human being. And for a brief instant, you find yourself absolutely captivated by that stranger’s life.

You know nothing about them, and yet you find yourself, if only for a moment, concerned about their stories — where they came from, where they’re going, what they’re doing this particular moment, who their loves are, what their childhood was like. And then the world sets back in — a breeze kicks up, the bus hits a bump, the waitress asks if you want a refill — and you’re distracted just long enough to completely lose that connection, for lack of a better term.

It’s a fleeting impression, and it’s not like you even remember what really drew you to that person. But perhaps, for just a brief moment, we’re given moments of grace like that to remind us of the connected-ness that all of us human beings share — not in a silly, pseudo-spiritual way but in a hard, tangible ways that we’d all see better if it weren’t for jobs, schedules, and duties (I’m reminded of the scene in Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, where the priest comments that if we could see how close we were to each other, we’d go mad).

All of these thoughts ran through my mind while watching Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Café Lumière. I couldn’t help but think that the plot, if one can call it such, of the movie came to Hou when he saw a young woman on a train, and fascinated by what her life might be, decided to transform that into a screenplay.

Yoko (played by pop star Yo Hitoto) is a freelance writer living in Tokyo who has just returned from Taiwan, where she was doing research on a Taiwanese composer for an article. Much of the film’s first part is simply her getting settled back into her life — visiting friends such as Hajime (played by Tadanobu Asano), a young man who owns a bookstore, and seeing her parents again. But the relationships are surface-level at best. For example, she spends most of the time at her parents asleep, missing any real time of family interaction. Futhermore, she doesn’t even seem that interested in her article, as she walks around Tokyo photographing former haunts of the composer.

It’s then that she drops a bombshell on her parents — she’s pregnant, and she’s decided to raise the child on her own. Her reason for not marrying the child’s father? His family makes umbrellas, and she doesn’t want to feel pressured into joining the family business.

Naturally, I was expecting this development to kick the film into high melodrama mode, or for the existential angst inherent in Yoko’s lonely, alienated life to kick in, transforming the movie into something resembling Last Life In The Universe. But the movie absolutely resists this, instead continuing along the slow, albeit graceful pace that it had been at all along.

Then a curious thing happened. Once I realized that the situations taking place onscreen were not going to be harnessed in the service of mere melodrama, that Hou wasn’t going to milk Yoko’s situation for every drop possible, I became that much more fascinated by the film. I became acutely aware of the reality of what I was seeing, and that made the film all the more real for me. For example, as I watched Yoko explain her decision concerning her unborn child to her parents, I realized that, if I was seeing this play out in real life, this would be a huge scene with immense consequences for Yoko, her child, and her parents.

Once I realized that, the reality of the image onscreen took on a whole new dimension for me. I became acutely aware of Yoko’s parents — the emotional turmoil contained within her father, often conveyed in nothing more than his posture, or the concern and anxiety of her stepmother. The relationship between Yoko and Hajime took on additional resonance as well. If you blinked, you might miss the clues hinting as his affection for her, but the scene where he discovers her asleep on the train and silently stands over her, gently smiling, is simple and lovely. The film’s final scenes, where Yoko follows Hajime around as he records the sounds of passing trains, bring closure in a way that no tear-stained, heartwrenching finale could.

What I realized most watching Café Lumière was just how well Hou captures the inherent mystery of individual human beings. If the film was done in just a slightly different manner, I could easily see the obtuseness of the characters and the absence of melodrama becoming a real liability. It helps, though, that the film is absolutely gorgeous. Camera movements are kept to a minimum, but the visuals remain lush and sublime.

Trains are a constant visual motif in the film, symbolizing perhaps, the hustle and bustle of modern life that we get so wrapped up in, or symbolizing the lives of characters always on the move but never getting anywhere. Whatever the case, the movement of the trains, the complex serpentine intertwining of their tracks, the over-crowded cars, are all beautiful (there’s one shot that’s used on the DVD menus of a series of trains moving in and out of tunnels, crossing paths on layered tracks, that’s quite hypnotic).

Furthermore, the light hint of nostalgia throughout the film, rendered most acutely by Yoko’s research into the life of the composer. The fact that every haunt frequented by the composer, every piano bar and cafe, has been turned into some soulless office space, speaks to that. Futhermore, the music, which consists primarily of delicate and beautiful piano melodies, seems to be drifting into the film from a different era.

Hou filmed Café Lumière to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen any of Ozu’s films, so I can’t comment on how well Hou paid tribute to Ozu (nor have I seen any of Hou’s other films, so I can’t comment on how Café Lumière stacks up to, say, Millennium Mambo). So I guess I’ll just have to take Café Lumière on its own merits.

Café Lumière is most certainly not a film for the impatient, or for those who aren’t able to just settle in and let themselves be drawn into a film without some melodramatic hook to do so. But for those who can, who appreciate slowness and stillness in film, then Café Lumière is a beautifully sublime and gentle work of art.

Read more reviews of Hou Hsiao-Hsien.