Favorite Movies A-Z: Café Lumière

In a roundabout, hemi-, semi-, demi-, sort of manner, this was my first introduction to the films of Yasujiro Ozu. I took a chance on a Japanese film by a Taiwanese director (Hsiao-Hsien Hou); I think because the movie had Tadanobu Asano billed second. He had the starring titular role in Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan and I wanted see his work in other roles. (Odds are, if an American audience knows him at all it’s from his bit parts as Hogun in a couple of Marvel’s Thor films.)

Here Hou has made a film emulating and paying homage to the great Ozu for the centenary of Ozu’s birth. It succeeds (mostly) because Hou doesn’t attempt a remake or to imitate Ozu too slavishly. There is a conscious and obvious connection in the subject matter and the cinematic style, but it is clearly a modern film by a different man. It is, in the best sense, how M. Night Shyamalan reminds one of Hitchcock. You see the influence and feel the respect for the master, but the disciple knows he must also be his own man.

This film is “about” a young, single woman named Yoko, played by Yo Hitoto. She is pregnant, but doesn’t seem to intend to marry the father of her child. The father is her sometime Taiwanese boyfriend (never shown in the film). Neither does she seem likely to marry her friend played by Asano who, despite the fondness he seems to have for her, is obviously relegated to the friend-zone. Though this worries her parents, she seems rather blithely unconcerned. Instead she focuses on her work as a writer by researching a Taiwanese composer who lived most of his life in Tokyo, and hangs out with her friend Asano. He works in (owns?) a small bookstore and has an obsessive hobby with making audio recordings of trains, both inside as they travel and from the platforms of each stop.

Like Ozu, to whom the film is paying homage, it is less about following the story of what is happening to the characters than using them to exemplify types of people in contemporary Japan. While on the whole rather less successful than the master, the movie yet manages some compositions of great beauty. The scenes where Yoko visits her parents in the country in particular evoke sehnsucht in the viewer.

If you’re not interested in a very quiet, very slow, and meditative film that doesn’t have a lot happen, this might not be for you. Which is fine. Some folks must have a tale of bawdry or they sleep. Moreover, I freely confess that this is not fully successful. But there is something there. I see at least a hint; a spark. There was just enough of the master Ozu in the work Hou has made to pique my curiosity and lead me to discover the greatest filmmaker to ever live. And for that, this will always hold a special place in my heart.

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