Saturday, May 28, 2011

REVIEW: Café Lumière

珈琲時光 (Kōhī Jikō)

Released: 2003

Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Hitoto Yo
Tadanobu Asano
Masato Hagiwara
Kimiko Yo
Nenji Kobayashi

Running time: 103 mins.

Reviewed by David Lam

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s "Café Lumière" opens with a static shot of twenty-something year old Yôko (Yo Hitoto) on a busy commuter train. Though she’s surrounded by passengers, she doesn’t interact with any of them. Instead, she’s staring off into space, thinking about the dream she had the other night and how it relates to the child she’s carrying. From there on, the camera slyly observes as Yôko wanders the city picking up clues on Jiang Wen-Ye (江文也, 1910–1983) a Taiwanese composer who apparently spent a brief amount of time in Japan. Aside from researching Jiang, Yôko periodically visits her friend (Tadanobu Asano) who works in a used bookstore and her parents who live in a rural part of Tokyo. The story may seem mundane but Hou has never been a filmmaker overly attached to narrative. Like all of Hou’s films, what is at stake in "Café Lumière" is the interior life of his characters and how it relates to their exterior world.

Commissioned as a film to commemorate Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963), "Café Lumiere" is burdened with having to honour the work of a master filmmaker while still being its own film. Thankfully the film doesn’t come off as a carbon copy of Ozu’s works but rather a heartfelt tribute that manages to stand on its own as a film. Although Hou peppers the film with scenes that utilize Ozu’s famous tatami shot, what really connects the two filmmakers are their similar sensibilities towards cinema. Their films comprise of quietly observed moments that serve to illuminate the human condition. "Café Lumiere" is filled with these little moments that when added up gives us a broader sense of Yôko’s life. Very few words are spoken in Hou’s film; rather, we come to understand Yôko’s character little by little through watching her daily interactions. You can feel her sense of isolation when she’s holed up in her tiny flat or confined to a train filled with strangers. Even when she ventures to the outskirts of Tokyo to visit her parents you get the sense that she’s lost no matter where she is.

Hou does a masterful job in allowing his film to unfold in a naturalistic way. He isn’t afraid to let scenes linger on a little longer in order to capture a certain mood or emotion. There’s an elusiveness to the film that’s enhanced by the use of Jiang Wen-Ye’s delicate piano compositions in the soundtrack. Yo Hitoto and Tadanobu Asano work well with Hou’s sparse script. They’re both wonderfully understated and add to the subtly of the film. Whenever Hitoto and Asano are onscreen together there’s a quiet intimacy between them that transcends words or action.

Like all of Hou’s films, "Café Lumiere" looks breathtaking thanks to his go-to cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin. Whether it’s shots of the busy city or the tranquil countryside, Lee allows pools of sunlight to flood each frame, giving the film a soft dreamlike glow.

"Café Lumiere" is a touching film about finding one’s own place in the world. It doesn’t inundate the viewer with a broad message or art house pretension. It simply unfolds at its own deliberate pace and allows its characters to just exist in the moment. Hou pays homage to the cinema of Ozu by having his film be a work of tremendous beauty and grace.

Read more by David Lam at his blog

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