Hou Hsiao-hsien retrospective: In Cafe Lumiere, the passage of time supersedes drama

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      Café Lumière (Kohi jiko)
      Taiwan/Japan, 2003

      Starring Yo Hitoto and Tadanobu Asano

      Hou Hsiao-hsien has been called a filmmaker's filmmaker. His 2003 homage to Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu (for Ozu's centenary), Café Lumière, is an illustration of why he received that informal title. Its appeal may escape the average viewer but offers cineastes much to appreciate.

      This quiet, deeply observational film was the first Hou shot in Japan, with an all-Japanese cast. The slightness of the plot indicates that the film is as much about the present, about place, rather than story.

      Shot with understated beauty and generosity lent to reflective pacing, we follow Yoko (played by J-pop star Yo Hitoto), a writer who is researching the life of 20th-century Taiwanese composer Jiang Wenye, who moved to Japan. After arriving back in Tokyo from a stint in Taiwan, she reconnects with family and friends as she goes about her daily activities.

      While the story is thoroughly urban and contemporary, Hou instills it with a rural, almost antiquated sensibility. In spite of capturing Yoko traveling through her world of coffee shops and endless trains, there's an intrinsic unhurriedness and patience. A bustling metropolis has never seemed so tranquil.

      In fact, the dramatic elements remain almost footnotes in the narrative. Yoko announces she's pregnant by her Taiwanese boyfriend, who she doesn't plan to marry; she plans to be a single parent. Tensions between her and her parents over the issue remain barely expressed, mostly through pensive pauses. Meanwhile, her friend, bookstore owner Hajime (Tadanobu Asano), harbours unrequited, unspoken love for Yoko, preoccupying himself with creating a digital collage of trains.

      Instead of expressing her feelings herself, Yoko remains haunted by a mysterious dream about a changeling child and becomes intrigued by a book with a similar story.

      The theme, the disintegration of the traditional nuclear family, is one that is distinctly Ozu-esque. Hou explores this subject through indirect means. Invisible walls remain between people, even when they're in each other's company: there are suppressed feelings, numerous chats by phone rather than in person, and an emphasis on the practical details of daily life.

      As with much in Japanese culture, what remains unsaid bears just as great, or even greater, weight than what is said. Just like the trains that frequently fill the screen, what isn't addressed is soon left behind with the passage of time.

      Café Lumière plays at the Cinematheque as part of Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien on February 21 (8:40 p.m.) and 22 (6:30 p.m.). 

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at twitter.com/cinecraig