Cafe Lumiere (2003)

Review #1,301

Director:  Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Cast:  Yo Hitoto, Tadanobu Asano, Masato Hagiwara
Plot:  The story revolves around Yoko Inoue, a pregnant woman in search for a cafe that's frequented by a Taiwanese composer whose life she is researching.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Nom. for Golden Lion (Venice).
Runtime:  103min
Rating:  PG
International Sales:  Wild Bunch

Screened in 35mm as part of the ‘Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’ retrospective at the National Museum of Singapore.

Trains, railway tracks and stations have long intrigued Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien.  Early films like A Summer at Grandpa's (1984) and A City of Sadness (1989) feature them nostalgically as bridges between the countryside and the city, or as backdrop to conflict and tension. 

In the underrated Goodbye, South, Goodbye (1996), an early long take puts us onboard as a train exits a station into the landscape.  However, nothing in Hou's filmography beats Café Lumiere in bringing his fascination to another level. 

Shot in the heart of Tokyo in his first picture made outside of Taiwan, Café Lumiere was first conceived as an anthology of three shorts.  But when the directors of the two other shorts backed out, Hou resolved to expand his to a feature. 

Made as a homage to the city and Yasujiro Ozu, Japanese cinema's most humanistic of screen chroniclers, Hou's work is a subtle and nuanced piece centering on a young Japanese woman, Yoko (Yo Hitoto), who is doing research on the music of the late Taiwanese classical composer Jiang Wen-Ye. 

With the assistance of a shopkeeper played by Tadanobu Asano, who enjoys recording the sounds of moving trains, they meet to explore the suburbs, and sometimes serendipitously cross paths traveling on the elaborate network of railways and trams. Yoko shuttles between Japan and Taiwan, but when her family learns of a significant development, her father, in particular, becomes silent.

Hou tries to balance family dynamics and the hustle and bustle of city life—in some way he is reverential towards Ozu, yet Café Lumiere does feel like it could have been made by modern master Hirokazu Kore-eda (Still Walking, 2008; Like Father, Like Son, 2013).  Well, I guess that doesn't really do either a disservice. 

There's no definite narrative shape to Café Lumiere.  It is also not exactly free-wheeling.  The worse I could describe it is that it is plotless, so viewers expecting a story might find this meandering.  Like Hou, who tries to search for a new sense of familiarity in modern Tokyo through his adulation for his cinematic idol, Yoko also seeks inspiration in the form of a treasured artiste in this cross-straits cacophony of artistic sounds.

Verdict:  On hindsight a homage to Ozu by proxy of Kore-eda, this is a subtle if plotless drama that continues Hou’s fascination with trains.  


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