Selected people in the West know Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. They generally agree that the director's films are icons of emotional filmmaking. Watch his Tokyo Story (The Criterion Collection), for instance, without your eyes welling up and you might be made of stone.
Cafe Lumiere is a film commissioned to commemorate the centenary of the birth of Ozu. The old familiar Studio Shochiku logo - under whose banner Ozu filmed many classics - depicting Mount Fuji appears at the beginning of Cafe Lumiere. The next two thematic shots are emblematic of Ozu. The sights of trains chugging along and an unextraordinary girl (Yoko played by Japanese pop singer Yo Hitoto whose song is heard here) are emblematically Ozu. One sees the trains, the girl, sights and sounds of Japan and interior shots. They even borrow foodstuff and utensils from the neighbours (or landlord here) as in Tokyo Story. That is where the comparisons stop however. In particular, where Ozu's tangible emotions were better than any in the history of cinema Hsiao-hsien Hou's Cafe Lumiere is in fact the opposite. Apparently, stationary tatami shots alone a masterpiece do not make. More on this a little later.
Yoko is back from Taiwan and carries news. She has been teaching Japanese in Taiwan and simultaneously researching Taiwanese composer Jiang Wenye. Beyond that, there is little one would call a plot. Nothing much happens and the film progresses and ends as it began, which is casually and for no good reason. The sights of Tokyo trains, and snippets of Takasaki where she hails from and her family still lives, take prominence in a tale of indifference and lackadaisical modernity. If routine human behaviour and norms are interesting then Cafe Lumiere wins. Indeed, the actors admit to a lack of rehearsals as the director enforced little practise and opted for long shots in which he invited the cast to simply be themselves in lieu of scripted acting. From this comes an everyday disengagement that is the hallmark of this film. Whereas with Ozu emotions are thick and palpable and stretch out from the screen to affect the viewer in Cafe Lumiere we find unfeeling, barren, asexual disengagement. This might be the director's aim - one constantly sees trains on divergent tracks either travelling in opposite directions or crisscrossing in Ochanomizu - to show how Ozu's forebodings of a changing Japan have now come to pass and nothing means anything where parents are powerless and the younger generation cares less. What is sure, however, is Cafe Lumiere evokes complete dismal detachment. And that is why its comparisons to Ozu's body of work is minimal only and superficial at best.
If storyline and gripping involvement are as far away in this film as musicality is from a rap album what else is there? For Tokyo enthusiasts there are clear shots of Tokyo train locales and street cars. The bookstore is near Minowabashi Station. Yoko is at the Nippori Station on the Keisei line in Arakawa where she rents a locker and at Koenji when walking by and visiting a book store. Viewers also see train bridges in Ginza, a clear shot of Senzoku-ike (station) entrance and the Ochanomizu Station, which has an interesting name. She also travels to Takasaki and is picked up at that city's train station. It is ideal for a train enthusiast like her friend Hajime-chan (played by Tadanobu Asano) who incidentally recently has gained prominence through his Hollywood adventures. The ordinary sights of Japan and the passersby are almost more interesting than the meagre script.
Another thing bears mentioning. The film was financed by the studio to reminisce Ozu, but why a Taiwanese director was brought in is somewhat questionable and especially given the debatable comparisons and result. In the DVD extras the director devotes time to his appreciation of Ozu. Hsiao-hsien Hou, in turn, cast Yo Hitoto who is half-Taiwanese and made her quest of a Taiwanese artist the subplot. Also in Cafe Lumiere is Kimiko Yo (who can be seen in the superlative Departures) who is an actress of Taiwanese background in Japan.
Cafe Lumiere is not alone in contemporary Japanese cinema in moving slowly or skewing convention or plot, but and as much as one might casually enjoy following and observing Yoko as she goes about her day, Cafe Lumiere had set itself up by associating itself with Ozu and is ultimately just mundane.