Cafe Lumiere

The more movies I watch, and the older I get, the more I enjoy a particular sight onscreen — people who are thinking.

And Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Cafe Lumiere is full of people thinking. Beautiful pictures of people thinking.

At the same time, it’s a tribute to Yasujiro Ozu, which is evident right away…

- from the meditative position of the camera (eye-level to a person kneeling);

- to the way a frame reveals not only a space, but a space beyond that, and hints of adjoining spaces, with sound coming from yet other spaces, suggesting a vast and complex world of activity and overlap;

- to the way that the camera remains focused on this space without following the people, which has the strange effect of de-emphasizing character and plot and emphasizing spatial relationships, change, and the passage of time through the changing of light;

- to the tendency of frames to be divided by vertical lines into a variety of smaller frames that contain different patterns of light, shadow, activity, and stillness;

- to the emphasis of an intergenerational world, where times and styles and traditions and expectations clash;

- to the emphasis on family;

and I could go on.

Like Ozu’s Tokyo Story, the film is mourning the passage of an era and a tradition, and more than a little dismayed at the direction things are heading.

The main character is Yoko (pop star Yo Hitoto), a girl living alone in Tokyo, who is drifting from her parents, scraping the bottom of her bank account, borrowing frequently from her landlord, eating on the run, writing about her favorite composer, and hanging out at a bookshop where she fancies the softspoken shopkeeper Hajime (played by Tadanobu Asano of Last Life in the Universe).

She also has a boyfriend in Taiwan, which has made things difficult in more ways than one, and her parents aren’t happy.

It would take me about three or four more lines to finish telling you the story, but the story is just a track for the train of this movie, and what’s really important and wonderful about the film are the sights along the way, the flickering marvel of the light through the train windows… if you will.

And trains do figure heavily in the film, signifying, perhaps, the way lives pass each other rapidly and with very little chance of any meaningful connection between them.

But the flickering lights and scenes we catch as the cars go by may also represent the flickering frames of celluloid flying past… and the filmmaker’s hope that perhaps we will connect with him, if only for fleeting moments, through the images he communicates.

Just as the characters long to find an old cafe beloved by the jazz composer they both enjoy…

…just as the shopkeeper has a preoccupation with recording the sounds of different trains in hope of reaching some kind of enlightenment about the essence of motion and time…

so the film carries us along in search of some elusive quality, perhaps the mysterious power of Ozu’s fimmaking technique.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s film is only for the patient, wide-eyed moviegoer. Its rewards are subtle and mysterious, hard to describe… but that’s what makes them special. Because Hou does not tell you what is important in the frame, but lets you explore and decide for yourself, it’s likely that you’ll see a different movie every time. On this, my first viewing, I was especially moved by Yoko’s thoughtfulness in bringing gifts everywhere she goes, by the subtle reminders of time passing in the movement of trains and clocks, by the silence of Yoko’s father, and by a faint smile on Hajime’s face in the closing scene.

If I could easily explain what it all means, and how Hou does it, then it would be the kind of thing that other filmmakers could easily reproduce. And Hou’s work, like Kieslowski’s, Bresson’s, and, yes, Ozu’s, is almost immediately recognizable because his style is so unique and personal. Even though this film and Flowers of Shanghai are set in different periods and focused on entirely different subjects, there’s no mistaking that we are seeing through the eyes of the same visionary.

At the end of the film, I find myself feeling calmed… which makes it very valuable to me these days. I also find myself wanting to see it again, even though my sensibilities have been trained by American cinema to demand a lot more activity and pre-packaged interpretations. The more I relax into the rhythms of filmmakers like Hou, Ozu, Bresson, and Edward Yang, the more I find myself interested in the quieter moments of the day that in years past I have considered inconsequential. You could call this “redeeming the time.”

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • Tracy

    I think they have the best pot de creme (with raspberry sauce dancing around it!) Yumm. Have you been to any of the other places?

  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    >>Rimsky-Korsakoffee house

    Yes! I love this place, Tracy. I grew up in Portland, so I go back there a lot to see friends, and we go to the RK sometimes.

  • Tracy

    Portland Oregon favorites:
    The Montage – Cajun food served at long tables which you will share with other parties. When someone orders oysters on the half-shell, the server calls out the order to the bar.
    Pho Van – Vietnamese noodle soup, stylish atmosphere and tamer menu items for those not as adventurous.
    Brasserie Montmartre – jazz bar with live music, crayon artwork and great steamed clams.
    Rimsky-Korsakoffee house – college hangout for late night coffee and dessert with live classical music.
    I live in Medford, Oregon now, so I miss those places.

  • Anonymous

    Seattle faves:

    Nice dinner on the town: Restaurant Zoe on 2nd
    Thai/cheap lunch spot: Mae Phim (Mae Phim Special!)
    Pizza: Mad Pizza
    Chinese: Tai Ho in Kenmore, Wild Ginger
    Burger: Red Mill
    Bakery: Macrina
    BBQ: OK Corral (Hook-up)
    Sushi: Wasabi Bistro
    Italian: Pasta Bella
    Mexican: Cactus
    Burrito: Gordito’s
    Sandwich: Other Coast (Ragin’ Cajun)
    Soup: Soup Daddy (Gumbo)

  • Adam Walter

    I’ll second Steve’s appreciation for Tacquaria Guayamos. I generally go to the Lynnwood one, but they now have a nicer place on Aurora in Shoreline (not far from the Costco).

    Also, Than Brothers Pho, the Queen Anne Pasta Bella, and any McMenamins place. Other than that, most of my eatin’ takes place north of Seattle city limits…

  • eucharisto

    Yeah, definitely cool. Seattle is amazing.

    Also, yeah, I had understood that you work at SPU, that’s great! I’ve seen a few pieces of your work in Response that I quite enjoyed, other than that, I wasn’t sure.

    Now that you mention it, I think it was Kell’s. Kind of behind the original Starbucks.

  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    You’re moving to Seattle? Cool. I think you’re thinking of The Owl and Thistle, or maybe Kells, or perhaps Fado. All three are good, but Kells is closest to the Market.

    Hey, welcome to Seattle Pacific! You know I work there, don’t you?

  • eucharisto

    I’m moving to Seattle For Seattle Pacific University in Sept. This ought to be helpful!
    While I visited, there was this great little Irish pub in an alley way behind Pike’s Market, had great shepherd’s pie, though it was a bit expensive.

  • Menshenfriend

    Jeff. I’m an ex-Seattlite living in Canada. When I’m back in Seattle I always try to stop at Tacquaria Guayamos and Pasta Freska. … And of course Spiro’s but, you already mentioned that.

  • Gene Branaman

    Jeffrey, Jeffrey, Jeffrey . . . It’s 9:10 & you’re makin’ me hungry! Red velvet cupcakes? Oooooh, man! And isn’t Cafe Ladro the one that does that does that amazing coffee drink with the orange peel in it? Mmmmm . . .

    Living, as I currently do, in Reno, there are a ton of great restaurants in the casinos but I prefer the less touristy ones. We have a few brew pubs but Silver Peak & Great Basin are the best IMO. SP made an amazing Ben Franklin ale this last Winter that made me feel like I was wearing a sweater when I wasn’t. And GB right now has their annual Chile Beso, kissed with real jalepenos! One of my fav Summer beers. It’s great with their beer cheese soup.

    If you’re ever in Auburn, CA (my once & future haunt), check out Latitudes, a restaurant that changes much of its menu on a monthly basis to that of a different nation. It’s in an old Victorian house across from the historic Placer County courthouse. They match wine & drinks to the dishes of the current lattitude, too. Really fun!

    For sushi, there’s Mikuni in Roseville, CA. Some of the most knowledgable sushi chefs to be found in the region. Tons of patrons from lunch to 9pm. When we go, we never look at the menu, we just tell our chef (hopefully Yoshi’s working, he’s amazing) to make something up. We’re always surprised & never disapointed! Great tempura, too, for those not into sushi. Sitting at the bar is a must.

    When in Ashland, OR for the Shakespeare festival (a friend just saw a preview of Cyrano de Beregac & said it’s wonderful), check out the Chateau for tasty French food, Standing Stone brewery for great beers & uncommon pub fare, hearty Italian at Il Giardino, & the Black Sheep pub (where actors hang out after shows) for that Guinness nightcap. (The next day you can rent a bike or take a hike to work it all off!)

    In Sacramento, there’s Tapa the World on J Street, a Spanish place (tapas, get it?) that imports flemenco dancers & musicians a couple times a month. Great tapas & amazing sangria that’ll sneak up on you if you’re not careful!

  • opus

    Jeffrey, are you a fan of The Kingfish? Both times that my wife and I have been in Seattle, friends have taken us there, and we loved it.

  • Dignan

    No El Gaucho? I suppose that it is more of an expense account restaurant. I used to go there all the time when I was in town working with Starbucks. Maybe the best steakhouse in the country.

  • Cpt Casual-T

    I wish you’d posted this before my visit to Seattle.

  • Nate

    L.A. has some great restaurants, but I’m far too poor to eat at many of them. (My last meal consisted of a packet of Sweet’N Low and some peanut butter smeared on a Triscuit.)

    However, my folks did take me out to Musso & Frank a few weeks ago, a bar & grill renowned as “the oldest restaurant in Hollywood.” I don’t think they’ve changed the menu since 1919, but it’s solid, unpretentious American cuisine.

  • CTDelude

    Another film I bought and yet to get to. Have heard wonderful things about the film and of course it stars Asano who is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors.

    Thanks for the reminder and the short review.


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