DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
CAFE LUMIERE (KÔHÎ JIKÔ) (director/writer: Hou Hsiao-Hsien; screenwriter: T'ien-wen Chu; cinematographer: Pin Bing Lee; editor: Liao Ching-song; music: Yousui Inoue; cast: Yo Hitoto (Yôko), Tadanobu Asano (Hajime), Masato Hagiwara (Seiji), Kimiko Yo (Yôko's stepmother), Nenji Kobayashi (Yôko's father); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Hideji Miyajima/Ching-Song Liao/Fumiko Osaka/Ichirô Yamamoto; Wellspring; 2003-Taiwan/Japan-in Japanese with English subtitles)

 
"A tribute to Yasujiro Ozu that can be seen as one film great saluting another from a different culture and time period."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Noted Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien's ("The Flowers of Shanghai"/"Millennium Mambo"/"City of Sadness"/"The Puppetmaster") sensitive, understated and minimalist effort is a tribute to Yasujiro Ozu (1903-63) that can be seen as one film great saluting another from a different culture and time period. It's a gesture made to celebrate the centenary tribute to Ozu; it was commissioned by Ozu's old Japanese studio Shochiku. As the credits open there's the familiar Shochiku studio logo of Mount Fuji. Other reminders of the venerable Japanese director include the plot using his familiar theme of an aging traditional family and their independent adult offspring who upsets their rooted calm by going on a different path, leisurely drinking rituals over coffee instead of tea (and meals where takeout orders are acceptable, but it's filmed at eye-level just like the master), and Ozu's familiar motif of trains coming and going. The title is a tribute to French cinema pioneers Louis and Auguste Lumiere.

Yoko (Yo Hitoto), a twentysomething struggling freelance writer returns to Japan from her usual Taiwan visit, where she has been teaching Japanese and doing research on the life of Taiwanese classical composer Jiang Wenye--a contemporary of Ozu, who lived in Japan during the 1920s and 1930s. She visits the reticent owner of a Tokyo secondhand bookstore named Hajime (Tadanobu Asano) and gives him a gift while he touts her onto Maurice Sendak's Outside Over There—a story in which goblins restore a young girl's baby sister with a baby made of ice. The story is significant because Yoko at 4 was abandoned by her biological mother and this book was a comfort to her as a child. At her elderly traditional parents' suburban home she drops the bombshell to her close-mouthed father (Nenji Kobayashi) and gregarious stepmother (Kimiko Yo) that she's three months pregnant from her Taiwanese businessman boyfriend, a former student whom she taught Japanese, and will not marry because he's a mamma's boy but will raise the child on her own. There's nothing they have to say to change her mind or comfort her. Yoko seeks comfort with Hajime, but he seems to be taken with her but can't spit it out and say so. Hajime's hobby is recording the unique sounds of the Tokyo railroad system on his mini-disc recorder and putting in on his laptop computer. In the serene and ultra-modern Tokyo setting, Yoko is seen through mostly long shots as a victim of urban alienation who suffers from loneliness and is not able to connect fully with her past or contemporary scene. 

The film offers a sharp comparison of Tokyo during Ozu's time (in particular from his classic Tokyo Story) and now. It also shows the would-be lovers are both collectors (music and trains), but they don't seem to have a depth for that other than to receive an immediate compulsive gratification. Hou is not judging them as lost souls, but connecting them to a modern lifestyle that has lost its roots and finds them struggling to find their own way in an increasingly  technological world without discovering yet what it all means. Without guidance from the elders or a sense of culture to hang onto, the youngsters are left to their own devices to see what works and what awaits them is anyone's guess. What Hou thinks of all this is not certain, but the film's tone is melancholy and he seems to be questioning how difficult it is for the young to express their true feelings. Though plotless, the everyday scenes and simpleness of the meditative story has a certain raw power that is immeasurable. It's ever so subtle in cutting through its hermetic surroundings to get at something more than meets the eye, and for those who take the director's bait there's something dreamlike on the end of the line that might be special for those who have the passion for such intrinsic delights.

REVIEWED ON 3/11/2006        GRADE: A+

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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