Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2003
I say it almost every year, but the 2005 New Zealand International Film Festival offered one of strongest line-ups ever, which is no mean feat considering the quality of programming in recent years. It was also one of the more serious-minded festivals we’ve had. As festival director Bill Gosden put it, ‘there aren’t as many laughs this year.’ But the large and varied programme appears to have encouraged more people to go to more films, and fairly demanding ones at that. I was surprised to discover that both screenings of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s CAFÉ LUMIERE had capacity crowds, not bad going for a director renowned for eschewing linear narratives in favour of a paired-back aesthetic that demands active participation from the viewer, a style of filmmaking less likely, one assumes, to appeal to those seeking an easy-going night at the flicks.
Made to mark the 100th anniversary of Yasujiro Ozu’s birth, Café Lumière isn’t an imitation of the great Japanese master’s aesthetic so much as a film made following his lead, reflected in direct visual quotes, the serene mood, the mesmerising stillness of Mark Lee Ping-bin’s images, and the motif of trains and railway lines. Hou’s Tokyo story updates Ozu’s visual and thematic preoccupations (intergenerational tensions) to show the extent to which traditional codes, practices, and beliefs have less influence and meaning. It's primarily a portrait of Yoko (singer Yo Hitoto, impressive in her acting debut), a young woman researching the work of Taiwanese composer Jiang Wen-ye. She and her friend Hajime (played by Japanese star, Tadanobu Asano), a bookstore owner with a hobby recording train sounds, find shelter in the easy calm of their close but platonic friendship. When she visits her parent’s home, Yoko makes clear that she has rejected their traditional values when she casually informs them how she intends to deal with her unplanned pregnancy.
With Hou’s signature ellipsis and minimalism to the fore, meaning is gleaned via the relationship between reality and fiction, movement and stasis, and subtly observed interactions between the protagonists. There’s a lovely moment when Yoko and Hajime unknowingly pass each other on different trains, an understated passage that recalls a wonderfully poetic sequence in George Franju’s little known gem La Première nuit (1958), in which two children travelling on different trains silently regard each other from their respective carriages (mere feet apart) until the trains veer off and the two are separated ... perhaps forever. Whether Hou consciously quoted Franju or not is hard to say, but it was a beautiful sequence regardless, entirely suited to an affectionate homage to Ozu, and a perfect encapsulation of Hou’s preoccupation with the rootlessness and isolation of contemporary urban life. The film could have been a much more sombre depiction of contemporary alienation, but Hou suggests that the reserved convictions of the young central protagonists are meaningful alternatives to constrictive tradition and contemporary torpor.
If there was a recurring theme in this year’s festival, it might be the growing awareness of societal dysfunction and dispossession, where aggressive neo-liberal agendas continue to erode societal values, an observation that is implicitly rather then directly expressed in Café Lumière. Some may find it boring, but for others Hou’s superb new film is one of the most satisfying cinematic achievements of the year.
Café Lumière promo