The Humanists: Hsiao-hsien Hou’s Café Lumière


by Colin Marshall

How often do we get two great cinematic tastes that, as they say, go great together? The Taiwanese director Hsiao-hsien Hou and the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu both, I would argue, display great taste, especially of the visual and rhythmic varietes. (Some insist Ozu had a tin ear, at least for music. Me, I could never strip his movies of those wobbly domestic strings.) But, separated by more than a generation, they never had a chance to collaborate. The next best opportunity came along in 2003, the 100th anniversary of Ozu's birth (and the 40th anniversary of his death). To mark the occasion, Hou made Café Lumière, his homage to the master of the small-scale, the unspoken, and the pillow shot.

Film scholars don't need to waste their time building arguments about whether Ozu's influence really drives the film; “For the centenary of Ozu's birth,” a title card nakedly announces right up front. The Ozu diehard, naturally, will only need to have seen the Shochiku logo. Crafting this project under the auspices of the studio for which Ozu worked all his life signals a certain seriousness, especially for a foreign filmmaker in a land famously protective of its inner life. And when this picture reveals how it sees Tokyo — well, case closed.

As unappealingly obsessive as it might sound, Café Lumière never strays far from the mechanics of public transit. Its story opens with a shot of a passing urban train, and many more of them appear throughout. These trains appear not as a fixture of a wealthy megalopolis but as part of a living, breathing, startingly calm organism grown also out of laundry lines, endless layers of icons and text, and web upon web of power and telephone lines. I hadn't glimpsed this sort of Tokyo since Ozu last captured it in the early sixties, this unassuming Tokyo seen, if not always at ground level, at least never from a much higher viewpoint than the average commuter enjoys.

Legend has it that Ozu shot his “home dramas” (including but most certainly not limited to Late Spring, Tokyo Story, and, previously written up in this column, Equinox Flower) with the camera mounted at the height of someone seated on a tatami mat. It always seemed a little higher than that to me, but the humility of the aesthetic choice still came across. It suited the humility of the circumstances; the homes in which his dramas played out always housed the stripe of family that, while appearing outwardly “middle class” to modern audiences, clearly sufferent from the kind of poverty — perhaps “lack” gets closer — that touched everyone in a Japan still so fresh from the Second World War.

Hou's characters live in the Japan of today, more or less, and hence don't writhe in the bondage of family ties with quite the same resigned anguish. Yoko, a young writer researching the life and work of Taiwanese composer Jiang Wen-ye, freely hops between her homeland and his. Hajime, a bookseller and artist who spends his free time recording the sounds of the railway onto Minidiscs, doesn't seem to have any family at all. Yoko, taking a stretch away from her boyfriend in Taiwan, returns to Tokyo to break to her parents the news of her pregnancy. They take it better than they take the news that Yoko has no desire whatsoever to marry the father — the non-Japanese father, mind you! — whom she considers a layabout.

In an actual Ozu picture, this would have turned into a matter of life and death, or at least the family would have treated it like one. Hou makes confusion the presiding emotion: it turns Yoko slightly wayward, it oscillates her mother between acting composed and comically flustered, and it drives her father to stare wordlessly out windows for nearly all his screen time. Too occupied with learning more about Wenye and his music to let the trouble at home affect her dramatically, Yoko tries to retrace the composer's long-ago travels in Tokyo while he falls nearer and nearer into Hajime's orbit — an orbit he inevitably makes, I suppose, what with all those train rides.

Both Yoko and Hajime live, relatively untethered, in their own worlds. Unsurprising that Yoko feels no urge to marry; how could her existence, strung from bookstore to coffee shop to the remnants of an avant-garde pianist's past, accommodate it? By the same token, Hajime can't say what he starts to feel for Yoko — assuming he does feel it. He maps out his reality explicitly in a piece of digital art he pulls up on his laptop: himself, as a microphone-wielding fetus, enclosed in a womb made of trains. You could say these two — Hou's characters, but very much modern Ozu characters as well — struggle under an excess of isolation where their cinematic predecessors struggled under an excess of connection, but perhaps too simplistically.

The lack remains, if not as precisely identifiable a lack as in Ozu. Where the older, Japanese filmmaker illustrated the dissolution of his people's families, the younger, Taiwanese filmmaker illustrates the results of that dissolution. This more complicated situation all but demands the hybrid sort of vision you get from crossing Ozu's with Hou's. Café Lumière thus unrolls with the former's stillness, human proportion, and habitation of the architectural, — looking from one door of a home through another into another — but also the latter's spontaneousness and aesthetic drift toward what's (often inexplicably) compelling. Ozu's pillow shots — character-free images of the natural and build environment included not to serve the film's story but its rhythm — like his people, stood mostly still. Hou's pillow shots, like his people, move, often with unclear motivation, but always toward what feels interesting.

I ultimately write about every filmmaker I write about because of the way they see and hear — the way they spin their sense perceptions into cinema. Many film writers have written many variations on the notion that Ozu saw, heard, and felt in ways terribly close to the core sensibilities of mid-20th-century Japan. Somewhat fewer have argued, no less forcefully, that Hou, who roots the bulk of his work in Taiwanese history and Taiwanese themes, perceives something equally essential about his own country in the late 20th century and early 21st. Grand and a little too neatly paradoxical though this may sound, Café Lumière makes you ask the question: could an equally Ozuesque view of a Japan 40 years after him have not just benefited from but required the eyes and ears of a director only influenced by Ozu's culture but just as steeped in another, only influenced by Ozu's aesthetic temperament but just as confident in his own?

All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.