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.”