Judge Joe Armenio's enthusiastic chants of "Hou! Hou! Hou!" often earn him strange looks on the subway.
Coffee, Time, Light.
The Taiwanese New Wave of the 1980s produced three world-class and wildly idiosyncratic filmmakers, all of whom are still working at a high level, although they're not exactly big names in the United States. Edward Yang's 2000 film Yi Yi, which got a wide U.S. release, makes him perhaps the most famous of the bunch; Tsai-Ming Liang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, however, with their uncompromising approaches to narrative and pacing, seem unlikely to be pleasing too many crowds in the future (see Judge Jesse Ataide's review of Goodbye Dragon Inn for a thoughtful take on Tsai's art). A quick look at the Village Voice's 2005 Critics Poll shows that Hou's CafÉ LumiÈre is the highest-ranked film (#12) that didn't get a theatrical release here in the Washington, D,C,. area, not even for a lousy week.
Facts of the Case
Anyway, kvetching aside, what about the movie? CafÉ LumiÈre is something of a departure for Hou, who usually works independently within the freewheeling (and allegedly gangster-financed) Taiwanese film industry. For this film, Hou went to Japan and accepted a commission, a tribute to the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963).
The film itself never mentions Ozu's name, although I'll discuss later the ways in which it's a meditation on some of the great man's favorite themes. The plot, such as it is, concerns a young woman named Yoko (played by musician Yo Hitoto), a freelance writer working on a piece about the Taiwanese-Japanese composer Jiang Wen-ye. On a visit to her parents, she casually reveals that she is pregnant and has no intention of marrying the father of the child, her Taiwanese boyfriend. Her mother engages her with a wary but loving concern, while Dad seethes silently. We see Yoko riding the train, talking to her friend Hajime (Tadanobu Asano) at his used bookstore, hanging out at a coffee shop, and visiting favorite sites from her childhood and the life of Jiang.
So how, then, is this Hou's tribute to Ozu? Their respective approaches to narrative provide a clue. Ozu, especially in his late masterpieces (from 1949's Late Spring to 1962's An Autumn Afternoon), was pretty unconcerned with plot, character development, or individual psychology: he tended to spin variations on the same few stories over and over, with minimally different seasonal titles. His one big subject was the passage of time, seen through the human life cycle: birth, marriage, death. A favorite plot (used in several films, including my favorite, Late Spring) involved a young, unmarried woman, living with her father, who reluctantly accepts her duty to leave home, marry, and raise a family of her own. These films are meditations on the transience of all things and thus on death. At their most profound, they exude a sort of sad calm which is not the facile "acceptance" of self-help books or pop Zen but a hard-earned lucidity.
Hou's understated films are similarly unconcerned with plot: most of the overtly dramatic stuff (even in big-canvas "historical" pictures like 1993's masterpiece The Puppetmaster or 1995's Good Men, Good Women) happens off-screen. Instead he shows us the spaces between dramatic events, life going on (to quote the English title of a film by Iranian Abbas Kiarostami, a director with a similarly oblique approach to storytelling). The story of CafÉ LumiÈre is, in its way, a version of the Late Spring story, updated to the early 21st Century. Ozu saw social structures like the patriarchal family as inevitable, necessary, part of the at-once changeless and everchanging passage of time, but Hou's film charts a family's dissolution. Yoko lives on her own, is independent of her family, and has no intention of marrying just because she's pregnant. Her father is not the kindly but steely type played by Chishu Ryu in so many Ozu films, whose orders were always obeyed; he is, instead, silent and powerless. There's a sense in Hou's film of a sort of nostalgia for the old structures: Yoko visits childhood landmarks, researches the life of Jiang and his Japanese wife. But times have changed and there is no going back: Yoko's decision is final.
CafeÉ LumiÈre, then, is about modern urban life in the absence of traditional families; have we all been severed from meaningful connections? The most vivid image Hou uses is that of the commuter train, speeding us about anonymously on our individual journeys. Hajime's hobby is riding around with recording equipment, trying to capture some pattern in the trains' various sounds; he also generates a computer image of himself as a sort of fetus, wrapped in a womb of trains. (He is also pretty clearly in love with Yoko, although he never says anything; this unspoken fact gives an added poignance to his search for pattern and connection.) The overlapping trains are also a sort of emblem of Hou's visual strategy. Each composition seems artless on first glance but gradually reveals a complex and beautiful pattern of overlapping horizontal and vertical lines; Yoko's apartment, the coffee shop, the bookstore, and the train are all environments of great solidity and depth. The gentle, unassuming complexity of the images matches perfectly the gentle, unassuming exploration of the story. It's a tribute to Hou's artistry that each scene seems to consist of nothing in particular; none of the themes I've been discussing are anywhere near overt but, in the end, the film emerges as thoughtful, flawlessly artful, and deeply compassionate. Like Ozu, Hou is non-judgmental: Yoko is neither brave nor foolish, happy or sad, alone or connected; she is all of these at once and, more importantly, she simply is.
Wellspring's DVD release presents the film in a bright and attractive anamorphic transfer, with optional English subtitles. They've also given us a nice package of extras, including an hour-long French documentary about the film called Metro LumiÈre. The film features some discussion of Ozu, along with clips from his films, and interviews with Hou and his producer and friend Liao Ching-Sung, who discuss the history of Taiwanese-Japanese relations (Taiwan was a Japanese colony for some fifty years ending in 1945). Hou contrasts the precision and stuffiness of the Japanese film industry with the more open Taiwanese system which he is used to, and talks about his interest in Jiang Wen-ye as an example of the ways in which art can transcend cultural differences. Hou's comments on his filmmaking methods is also interesting; he says that he often uses telephoto lenses because his non-professional actors are less self-conscious when the camera is far away. Wellspring also includes brief (eight-to-ten minute) interviews with Yo Hitoto, Tadanobu Asano, and Hou. Both actors emphasize Hou's calm, compassion, and control, while Hou talks a bit more about his history with Ozu (he was impatient with the films as a young man, but then grew to appreciate the older man's humor and wisdom after seeing a screening of his 1932 silent, I Was Born, But…).
CafÉ LumiÈre is a subtle, refined, and beautiful film, but it might not be the best place to start if you're unfamiliar with Hou's work, since it's so pared down. A few of his films are available on DVD, including The Puppetmaster (in a rather subpar Fox Lorber release, but the genius shines through), the towering rumination on Taiwanese history that is always on my short list of 10 or 20 favorite films. Of his "modern" films, be sure to check out Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996), his haunting portrait of a small-time gangster attempting to clean up his life.
Hou! Hou! Hou!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Wellspring Media
• Documentary: Metro LumiÈre
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