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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
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   Cafe Lumiere  


Café Lumiere

Reviewed by drakula

Japanese Title: Kôhî jikô
Director: Hou Hsiao Hsien
Writing Credits: Hou Hsiao Hsien, Chu Tien Wen
Cast: Hitoto Yo, Asano Tadanobu, Yo Kimiko, Kobayashi Nenji
Genre: Drama
Country: Taiwan, Japan
Language: Japanese
Year Released: 2003
Runtime: 108 min

Ozu is dead. If there's one thing that Hou manages to prove in his tribute to Ozu's centennial, it is that Ozu is dead. Never is there going to be another man who can portray human relationships in the same light as Ozu. The same steadfastness they have as they try as hard as they can to hold on to each other; the sadness they feel when having to leave the family; the difficulties of living together in one household; the moments of regret that they have when one of their family has to leave; and their final acceptance that these are all but a part of life.

Hou shows us a Japan that has changed so much from the Japan that Ozu so painstakingly tries to hold on to by capturing it on his camera. Each tear, each regret, each joy is now lost in a world that tries too hard to change. Wim Wenders first laments this in Tokyo Ga on how banal Tokyo has become and how much of an imitation culture new Japanese culture is. Café Lumiere, while not being as impassioned as Wender's masterpiece, is every bit as pensive about its regret of the passing on of the old Japan that Ozu loves so much.

While in Ozu's films, a pregnancy would herald a big event in a family's lifeline, in Café Lumiere it is merely a passing thought; while in Ozu's films, the lead character (most often played by goddess-like Hara Setsuko) would usually be self-sacrificial as best she can to ensure the family's togetherness, here Yoko is determined on striking out as a single mother, regardless of her father's silently burning disapproval.

Undeniably, Hou doesn't pass much judgment on his characters. In fact the portrayal of Yoko only shows her as a very modern and much independent Japanese female that is fast becoming the norm in Japan. The female who does not want to be tied down and holds little regard of familial values. And definitely, it would be seen as regressive should Japan return to the past for the sake of the days when family was at the core of societal structure. After all, the definition of progress is change right?

Yet, one can't help but feel the absence of Ozu in this movie, the absence that makes its tone all the more poignant in spite of its spots of warmth. Ozu seems to be like the ghost of Maggie Cheung in 2046, or the missing woman in L'Avventura; he is not there, and is never referenced in the movie, and yet, the opening shot of the movie and a few scenes of familial warmth gives one such a pang in the heart that is so distinctly Ozu. In fact, that Hou decides to have many shots of trains departing and leaving and criss-crossing each other in modern Tokyo, and letting us hear the all-familiar sounds of trains going across railways that is so definitive of Ozu's films, only shows that he is fully aware of this fact, and, like Wenders, is seeking to find what little there is left of Ozu's spirit. In the overwhelmingly modern backdrop of Tokyo, we see how something of the past, like the café that Yoko hunts for, that some people so want to preserve, has been turned into another urban development project. However, in the film, Hou also shows us that although the landscape of Tokyo now denies Ozu, there is still decidedly some of Ozu's warmth in human relationships. Like how Yoko still feels the same kindred spirit as she tucks into her favorite dish that her mother has prepared; seeking out old sights in her hometown, sights that remind her of times when she was a kid and still not thinking of independence. And just perhaps, in showing all this, Hou is persuading us to accept life as what we can, just as how the people in Ozu's movies eventually have to accept the loss of one of their family members.

I went to Tokyo last June and coincidentally, Kamakura was part of the itinerary. I remember how excited I was, since Kamakura was many a setting for Ozu's films, and it was the place where Ozu was buried after his death. As I reached the Kamakura station on the Enoshima metroline, my heart was all awashed with glee to see that the station looked almost exactly the same as it looked in Ozu's films. The same old signboard, and the same railway tracks against looming mountains. And yet as I walked around Kamakura (now a popular tourist spot for its famous Daibutsu or Big Buddha), I couldn't help but notice how foreign it was despite its quaint Japanese-ness. There were so many tourists walking around the town amidst its quiet suburban houses, and so many signboards blaring English signs. In a bid to find Ozu's grave, every time I saw a cemetery I would go over to look if there was a tablet that has only a 'mu' character on it. But I never found it. Sigh.