Hou Hsaio-hsien’s Café Lumiere, his plaintive tribute to the incomparable Yasujiro Ozu, is certainly sure to piss off large sections of its audience. I had the curious experience of seeing it with quite a big audience at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and much of this crowd was comprised of people who were only there to ensure themselves good seats for the next session in that cinema: Kung Fu Hustle, introduced live by Stephen Chow himself. Needless to say, with the notoriously slow and static Hou directing a tribute to someone who was not exactly Michael Bay either, there was a great deal of restlessness at the screening.
While certain scenes composed from Ozu’s legendary “tatami mat” camera angle will definitely bring knowing smiles to the faces of many viewers, the overall style of the film is far more Hou than Ozu. And trains, this movie is all about trains: Ozu’s repeated use of them in his work is reborn in Café Lumiere as a more aggressive motif, the constant movement of trains, whether the camera is viewing them from inside or out, is made all the more fascinating by Hou’s uncompromisingly static setups.
Employing an overtly Ozu-esque theme of generational conflict and disconnection, with all the appropriate subtlety, Café Lumiere is interesting in the light of Ozu’s work in that its older characters, specifically Yoko’s parents, are essentially the young people of Ozu’s films. The result of this is a poignant illustration of how such conflict is universal throughout time, and not just some exclusive product of Japan’s post-war Westernisation as is usually ascribed to Ozu’s work.
Beyond general themes, motifs and references – both stylistic and overtly quotational – to Ozu, this is very much a Hou film. His lack of interest in conventional narrative far exceeds that of his inspirer: if Ozu was happy to use mundane, but nonetheless robust, narratives as clotheslines on which to hang his thematic obsessions and hone his stylistic system, Hou doesn’t even see the need for that clothesline. Nonetheless, this movie is gorgeous in its style, and acutely contemplative about the emotional state of a young woman going through the most important time in her life, in a world frighteningly bereft of meaningful connection. It seems particularly appropriate that I don’t remember seeing a movie set in modern Japan that is so lacking in big crowds of people as this one.
Naturally, many people find this kind of film-making alienating at best, and infuriating at worst. Additionally, it is held to be a depressing film even by those who admire it, but personally I found it tranquil and relaxing in a particularly pleasant way. Or at least I would have, if the people sitting around me weren’t going on and on about how terrible it was. Each to their own.