"Cafe Lumiere" is the homage that Hou Hsiao-hsien, a Taiwanese director, paid to Yasujiro Ozu, a Japanese director renowned for the way in which he managed to depict the dynamics of family life and the inner life of his characters.
Did he succeed? I think so, due to the fact that he manages to put the spectator in the place of Yoko, a young woman that is pregnant but doesn't feel like marrying her boyfriend, a grown man that remains too attached to his mother. As we watch "Cafe Lumiere", we want to know what she thinks, and how she is going to react to the new development in her life. The spectator is also interested in her friend, a bookstore owner that seems romantically interested in Yoko, and that has an unlikely but strangely poetic hobby.
Are you likely to enjoy this movie? I really don't know, because "Café Lumiere" is a peculiar movie, the kind that some love, but others hate. I can tell you that it is a beautifully made film that pays extraordinary attention to little details, but that has an extremely open ending. Can you like that kind of film? According to your answer, you will know what to do...
- Belen Alcat, June 2007 -
PS: I liked "Café Lumiere" well enough to give it at least 3 stars out of 5.
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22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
Gentle and SubtleFeb. 8 2006
Amy E. C.
- Published on Amazon.com
This is a very different kind of storytelling. Everything is shown, almost nothing is told. You have to be keen to pick up the clues, but the scenes are all so quiet that it's too easy to think nothing is happening. Often, even the placement of the camera is telling you something.
It's a slow, gentle, slice-of-life look at one modern woman's relationships. Not for everyone.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Excellent film; definitely a work of art.March 4 2009
- Published on Amazon.com
In the special presentation segment, an interview with the director, Hou Hsiao-hsien in Taiwan, he comments that Japanese viewers felt he strongly captured the essence of Japanese cultural life. The wonder of this film is it's subtlety in showing the aesthetic of the characters. Woody Allen for instance exaggerates characters and focuses on the dysfunction and weaknesses of the characters. Here, the characters are faced with the dilemma of having a life, but also facing an unexpected pregnancy. The don't, however whine and complain or have psychological breakdowns. As cinema, this is a 5 star gem. All of the visuals are magnificent. This accomplishment was not accidental; much planning and re-shooting of scenes was required to make this film look so easy. As another reviewer mentioned, the title has historical reference to the Lumiere brothers as pioneers in film; and the train sequences both visually and audio are wonderful. I am curious if a foley artist was used for some of the sounds inside the train or if they were dubbed in from real life. Re Ozu, the clips shown in the special segments, imo were much more harsh, crass, and unevolved aesthetically than the subject film.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Studying a Detail With Delicacy and Patience To Pull Up a DiamondJan. 26 2015
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A movie starting with the logo of Shochiku Company. My heart is warming up: the logo Ozu's movies were starting with, his almost sixty movies, all produced at Shochiku.
Then it is the image of a light train, again reminding Ozu. From now on though, you feel there is another moviemaker, with a totally different style: director Hou Hsiao-Hsien. It's Café Lumière (Kôhî jikô), made in 2003, a homage to Yasujiro Ozu's centennial (a splendid video by AsianVirusNet could not be inserted here, unfortunately, due to its size).
I saw three such movies dedicated to Ozu: each one expressing a very different personality (Kiarostami, Wenders, Hou). An Iranian, a German, a Taiwanese. Hopefully I will find time to write about each one.
The movie of Hou Hsiao-Hsien is possibly the most disconcerting among the three. Kiarostami's Five Dedicated to Ozu is programmatically experimental: five cinematic poems about contingent facing eternity. You know what it is about from the very beginning. It's like an abstract painting: if you disagree with the non-figurative, then you don't look at. While the movie of Hou apparently has a plot, only it's just a pretext. So you are waiting for something to happen, in vain: Café Lumière is about something else.
Yoko is a young free-lance writer or something, living in today's Tokyo. She's trying to find some traces of a Taiwanese musician who lived in Japan between the two world wars. We are told at some point in the story that Yoko is three months pregnant; she is determined to remain a single mother (which worries her parents; Yoko sees them now and then).
Okay. There is also a young antiquarian (Hajime) who is a train buff and rides trains to record sounds: trains stopping in stations, doors opening, public announcements, doors closing, trains starting again, passengers' conversations. The guy is clearly in love for Yoko; they remain only best friends.
Meanwhile she goes by train here and there, enters cafés and bookstores, talks by phone with the antiquarian.
And this is it. Don't ask about the father of the future baby. Don't ask about things to happen. Don't ask about any outcome.
In any movie of Ozu something happens, while the movies of Hou are meditative, depict an atmosphere (even when they are dedicated to Ozu :). Actually Hou's passion for Ozu is visible also in other movies. The final part in Millennium Mambo is clearly suggesting Ozu (while remaining Hou hundred percent). Or one of the first sequences in Good Men, Good Women: there is a TV monitor and a movie is running; it's Late Spring, the scene of the bikes (it was my first encounter with Ozu).
I'm trying to understand: is there a difference in the scale of values between the movies made by Hou Hsiao-Hsien up to the start of the new millennium and his newer movies? I saw Flowers of Shanghai, then The Puppetmaster, and I was impressed. I saw Good Men, Good Women, then Goodbye, South, Goodbye, then Millennium Mambo: it took a long time to get their point, to range them on my scale.
Flowers of Shanghai calls in mind Chekhov (and Mateiu Caragiale - if you haven't heard about him it's bad for you - only you'd need Romanian knowledge to read him, even very good knowledge). Millennium Mambo is a journey in the sordid world of youngsters good of nothing, small thieves (now and then), night club hostesses, petty gangsters; it is an initiatic journey, to discover that our dreams are snowmen who melt at sunrise - we live in the country of snowmen and we don't know it.
Well, you cannot say that these movies have a definite plot, either; it's all about exploring universes; the thing is that their universes are large, while Hou's newer movies are intimist. Café Lumière: a young writer who doesn't find topics of discussion with her parents and befriends a young antiquarian with a passion for train sounds. Three Times: three couples of lovers who talk and look at each other in 1911, 1965, 2005. Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge: a kid, a single mother, a young Taiwanese, all three exploring Parisian streets, Chinese puppet theaters in Paris, Parisian attics - while the director is trying with his movie to find the atmosphere of an older Paris, the one of Lamorisse (do you remember his Ballon Rouge?)
It was Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge that gave me the clue for Café Lumière. The plot is just a pretext. It's actually about Hou Hsiao-Hsien himself: the Taiwanese director coming to Tokyo and looking for some old Nippon atmosphere of good Ozu's times.
And everything starts to make sense. The main character often travels to Taiwan where she teaches Japanese. The musician who lived in Tokyo between the two world wars was a Taiwanese.
He was a real person (Jiang Wen-Ye), who composed delicate music resembling jazz, Formosan Dance, Three Dances, Maggio Suite, Bagatelles - they sound fine and as I was listening to them another great musician came to my mind, maybe one of the greatest of the past century: Conlon Nancarrow.
Watching Café Lumière and listening, together with Yoko and Hajime, to a piano piece of the Taiwanese who became a Japanese, while feeling how your memory's calling a player-piano piece by Nancarrow: that's the movie, it has no plot at all; it has charm a lot.
Yes, everything makes now sense. Yoko befriended the young antiquarian and visits him at the bookstore, they browse together old books, and old maps of Tokyo, trying to locate an old café, DAT, that was frequented by the Taiwanese musician in the thirties: he was spending evenings and nights there, listening jazz, thinking at his compositions.
It is the journey of Hou, actually, towards the Tokyo of between the wars and of the fifties; a journey suggested by old books and old maps examined within old second-hand bookstores; suggested by old pieces of music, listened in narrow spaces, so narrow that only a whisper could find room between the two friends; suggested by elegant cafés or old neighborhoods.
And of course DAT, the old café, is no more, replaced by an impersonal office building (the site is hardly discovered, by asking old waiters in small pubs, the folks who always keep pieces of history within themselves).
The family from Ozu's time is no more, either. Yoko is not Noriko of Setsuko Hara, ready to sacrifice herself for the parents; on the contrary, she is a very independent girl, very remote to her parents' values and worries, taking her pregnancy very matter of factly, committed to remain a single mother rather than giving up freedom, taking a friendship with a boy her age as it is, nothing more.
Is it anything that remained, from the old times of Ozu? Not much, or rather nothing. The nostalgia for those years, that's all. They are dreaming at traditional dishes with old spices, at a small drink slowly tasted : there is a scene in the movie, with Yoko and her parents together in a small restaurant - it is in vain. Ozu died and his world is over.
However, there is something that remained. It's hardly to define it: that special warmth between two people, Yoko and her friend, lonely together, even when they are looking for each other: a superb scene with her traveling in a train, while he is in another train on a parallel track; the two are like together for a second, then the trains take each one its tunnel; after a while, she's falling asleep in a train car, he enters the place and is looking at her with a warm smile, letting her sleep; minimalism at its best.
What about Ozu's trains? Well, Hou creates with them a world of its own, tracks over tracks in all directions, with trains leaving tunnels to enter other tunnels to meet never; but this is the merit of the great image director, Lee Pin-Bing, one of the greatest in the world. He made the image for almost all Hou's movies (and also for Tian's Springtime in a Small Town).
Is now Hou inferior to his older movies? Maybe not, but his universe became condensed as aiming to be a black hole. The great subjects of Taiwan's history were in the past. Now it's about studying a detail, a single detail, with delicacy and patience, to pull up a diamond.
The master would have approvedSept. 23 2014
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Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao Hsien is a critically acclaimed auteur whose work is maddeningly unavailable on DVD. Of his 20 films only three are currently being offered at prices collectors can afford. Can someone (Artificial Eye, are you reading?) please give us his films from the 80s/90s preferably in a couple of cheap box sets? The Boys From Fengkuei (1983), A Summer at Grandpa's (1984), A Time to Live, A Time to Die (1985), A City of Sadness (1989), The Puppetmaster (1993) and Good Men, Good Women (1995) all won prizes at major film festivals and it is criminal that we are denied a chance to see them. As it is we have only Three Times (2005), Flight of the Red Balloon (2008) and the film under review here, Café Lumière. Commissioned by Japan's Shochiku studio to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Ozu Yasujirō's birth, the film was the first Hou made outside Taiwan and is an homage to the master of minimalism truly worthy of the name. Of course, it helps hugely that Hou's outlook is very similar to Ozu's anyway, but in Café Lumière he really does take the themes of Ozu's austere post war masterworks to their logical conclusions.
Ozu was a director primarily concerned with the world as seen through the eyes of the shomingeki (domestic family drama) and from Late Spring (1949) through to his final An Autumn Afternoon (1962) together with screenwriter Noda Kōgo he charted the social transition that took place in Japan following World War II and the resulting American occupation. He saw family as the center of Japanese society. Once tight and very protective of their own, families became looser after the war. Children (especially girls) received increasing freedom to go their own way without the traditional need for discussion or consensus. Each Ozu film saw the same themes centering on generation conflict being explored again and again. The films became increasingly spare, static, stark and despairing at (what Ozu thought of as) the deterioration of family values and the consequent transformation (break up?) of Japanese society. Late Spring centers on a father-daughter conflict with the daughter initially refusing to be married off, but it ends up a celebration of traditional values as they both accept their roles - she as a new wife and he as the single father who must stand alone. 12 years later An Autumn Afternoon finds Ozu in a much darker more cynical mood telling virtually the same story but including the advent of ugly new materialism and the significant secondary character of a drunken failure who ruins his daughter by holding on to her for too long. The film's bitter shōganai (`it can't be helped') ending is a far cry from the poised moving final shots of Late Spring.
In Café Lumière Hou takes this gradual disintegration of family life even further so that the film is in effect a shomingeki without the binding sense of home. Yoko (Hitoto Yo) is a young student/writer living alone in a Tokyo apartment. During a visit to her parents in the country during ōbon (the traditional summer-time period where family members get together to pay respects to the spirits of dead relatives which are said to come alive during this time) she reveals that she is pregnant with the baby of her Taiwanese boyfriend who she has no intention of marrying. She states her intention to have the baby and raise it on her own. Family relations are not tight. Her father (Hagiwara Masato) is silent, only capable of sitting, brooding and boozing. Her `mother' (Yo Kimiko) is not her biological mother. It's later revealed that the real mother left Yoko when she was four, giving herself up to a religious cult which is not specified. This could be a large religious organization like Sōga Gakkai, or perhaps a more sinister cult like Aum Shinrikyo - the organization responsible for the 1995 sarin gas subway attack. Mass public support for such religious groups is held by many in Japan to be symptomatic of a nation lacking moral backbone. Hou stresses the significance of the trauma of Yoko's childhood separation from her mother by featuring her nightmare and the book (Maurice Sendak's Outside Over There) which possibly explains it, linking her abandonment with the imminent arrival of her own child. Her new mother is not a bad sort and recognizes the need for the father to talk to his daughter about her future. But of course, the two say nothing to each other when they are left alone. In a fashion typical of many relationships between father and children in today's Japan, meaningful communication has all but broken down. Yoko takes solace in her work (researching the life of Taiwanese composer Jiang Wen-Ye whose real life widowed wife we get to meet and whose music permeates the soundtrack) and in her friends, a tempura cook (Kobayashi Nenji) and a bookshop owner named Hajime (Asano Tadanobu). He has an obsession with trains and recording the sounds of their movement which Yoko in turn gets caught up in.
As a long term resident here in Japan I can verify that in the film Hou gives us an accurate picture of modern society where the importance of family often gives way to the importance of friends. Like many young people here Yoko can't talk to her family even if she wants to, preferring her freedom and the support of Hajime who is offered up as a possible future partner. Key to the film are the numerous shots of trains and the computer program Hajime has designed, especially the picture of Yamanote Line trains arranged in a circular design around a foetus in the middle of a black hole. As we know from Ozu, trains denote the restless impermanence - the transience - of all things and in this film the city (the Yamanote Line is the circular line that loops around central Tokyo) becomes the surrogate parent for Yoko and her densha otaku (train nerd) possible partner. Of course we could also read it that the foetus is Yoko's baby and the trains represent her. She could well be transient impermanence personified.
I haven't seen enough Hou films to say if the mise-en-scène of Café Lumière is typical of him or not though some critics do say it is. It certainly does bear a resemblance to his next film, Three Times and (more relevant to the brief) the influence of Ozu is all-pervasive. With cameraman Mark Lee Ping Bin, Hou retains Ozu's preference for the long static take with little or no movement of the camera. When the camera does move it is in little pans either left or right. Cutting is the 180˚ kind as evidenced by the way Hajime's bookshop is seen first from the door and then later from the shop back. Yoko's family home is established in the same manner. The trademark Ozu low camera frames the room squarely with kotatsu (heated low table) firmly center of frame. Then the shot is reversed completely from the opposite direction. `Pillow shots' are not heavily evident, but the shots of train tracks are obvious examples which function as transition devices in a way the great man would have approved. Ozuian ellipsis of both time and space is much in evidence. Most obvious is the way Yoko leaves her home. She says she's going to borrow a bike and goes to a train station to look up an old friend who is asleep. The next thing we know she's in a coffee shop back in Tokyo. The ellipse tells us everything we need to know about the ennui she feels at her home-life and the fact she wants to escape it as quickly as possible. Spacial ellipses occur where characters talk to people who are off-screen with Hou (like Ozu) choosing to let us exercise our imaginations rather than simply showing us everything. The whole feel of Café Lumière is one of simple, subtle and delicate restraint. This may or may not be a Hou mainstay (judging from Three Times, I'd say it is), but it certainly does concur with Ozu. As other reviews posted here show, there are many for whom the film is so subtle that it appears to be about nothing at all. Actually, it taps into the confused transience of modern Japan with remarkable acuity. I recommend you watch closely and carefully because this film does work a spell over you in its own very quiet way. Ozu would have approved.
This ICA Projects disc is a model of its kind. The images are clean and very sharp (aspect ratio: 16:9) and the sound is well-balanced. The subtitles are also letter-boxed properly which is a good thing - they don't fall off the bottom of the screen like they do in some Artificial Eye discs I have bought! There are no extras which is a shame. Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns provides the subtitles, but it's a pity he couldn't add a commentary as well. He has probably done more than any other western critic to get Hou's name more recognized as his reviews for Time Out testify. Let's hope his efforts lead to more of his films being made available soon.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Great ode on so many levelsFeb. 13 2013
- Published on Amazon.com
Movie: 3.5 stars; Bonus materials: 4.5 stars
"Cafe Lumiere" (2003 release from Japan; 104 min.) starts off with informing us that this movie is a homage to the centenary of the birth of famed Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. As the movie then stars, we follow a young woman, Yoko, as she lives her daily life. She takes care of her (very small) apartment in Tokyo. She goes to visit her parents in suburban Tokyo. She is following up on leads for a story she wants to write about a Taiwanese composer Jiang Wen-Ye, who ncame to Japan at a young age (and whose work is featured on the soundtrack). She even reveals that she is pregnant and has no intention to marry the baby-daddy, a far-away boyfriend in Taiwan. She also befriends a bookshop owner who in his spare time loves to record the sounds of the trains and tramcars in the vast public transportation system in Tokyo.
Several comments: the movie may puzzle some, as seemingly not much is happening, other than we follow Yoko in her daily life. But notice how much time is spent on the trains and tramways transportation system in Tokyo, which the director brings onto the screen at times almost like a ballet, just mesmorizing. But this movie should NOT be viewed in isolation. If you are, like I was, more or less ignorant about Japanese director Ozu, by all means make sure to check out the bonus materials of this DVD release, including interviews with the director and the actress portraying Yoko. Most essential of all is the bonus documentary called "Metro Lumiere", a 75 min. French documentary that delves into the nitty gritty of Japanese director Ozu, and how Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien became involved in this and ultimately directed the movie. After having seen the actual movie, I thought this documentary was simply fantastic in bringing new perspectives, and in that sense I rate it higher than the movie itself. A must-see for movie buffs.