I wasn’t a huge fan of Millennium Mambo (2001), Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s breakthrough film. I liked looking at Shu Qi, but the lack of any discernible plot left me cold. As far as Taiwanese film goes, I much prefer the minimalist films of Tsai Ming-Liang, where existential dread makes up for a lot. So I approached Café Lumiere with caution. What brought me back to Hou Hsiao-Hsien was the film’s connection to Yasujiro Ozu, one of my favorite filmmakers. On its packaging, Café Lumiere is declared an “homage to Yasujiro Ozu,” but, after a suitably old-school Shochiku logo, we’re back to the same old Hou Hsiao-Hsien. I hated it.
But I watched it again. Despite my antipathy for the film, I was drawn back, and on the second viewing the film revealed itself to me. The trick was to stop thinking of it as an Ozu film and appreciate it for what it was: a beautiful exercise in restraint that happened to be shot in Japan with Japanese actors.
The more I watched it (and I’ve viewed it numerous times), the more the Ozu influences crept in. Ozu’s films are character-based. The man hated plot; he said it forced characters to do things they wouldn’t normally do; behave outside character, as it were. He preferred anecdote. In films such as Late Spring (1949) and Late Autumn (1960), the major force of change—the marriage of a daughter—is never shown. It is spoken about before and after, and the result of its having happened is shown. Late Spring‘s famous final image of the lonely father silently peeling an apple is one such an example.
Hou Hsiao-Hsien is an even less plot-driven filmmaker. In fact, it’s hard to even find the anecdote in Café Lumiere. Yoko (pop singer Hitoto Yo) has just returned from Taiwan where she’s been doing research on the Taiwanese composer Wen Ye Jiang. She reveals in conversation with her parents that she’s pregnant by her Taiwanese boyfriend, yet doesn’t want to marry. She’ll raise the baby by herself, a 21st-century version of Ozu’s modern woman—and perhaps a reference to Tokyo Twilight‘s (1957) unwed pregnancy. But where Ozu uncharacteristically mined the pregnancy for melodrama—it was clear how the director felt about that—Hou Hsiao-Hsien presents it objectively, an empathetic point of entry into Yoko’s character.
Café Lumiere succeeds because the characters are not just likeable but feel extremely real. In an interview accompanying the film on the DVD, Hitoto Yo talks about Hou Hsiao-Hsien telling her to just be herself. Talking on the phone, chatting with her friend Hajime (the ubiquitous Asano Tadanobu), walking around—it really is like the director just turned his camera on a few people and let the film unspool. That a film with essentially no beginning and no end should remain entertaining throughout is a remarkable achievement. Rarely has the term “slice of life” been more appropriate.