Sunday, April 02, 2006

TAIWANESE CINEMA—Kôhî jikô (Café Lumière)

It was Doug Cummings' 2004 Toronto International Film Festival review of Hou Hsiao-hsien's Kôhî jikô (Café Lumière) that first brought my attention to this film. I added it to my wish list. Then while in Paris last September I had my first opportunity to view Café Lumière, albeit in Taiwanese with French subtitles. I'm proficient in neither language but elected to experiment with immersing myself in the film's visual imagery. It was an interesting way to watch a movie and not a completely worthless experiment; I lost a lot even as I watched a lot. I focused on composition, camera work, lighting, while my traveling companion Michael Hawley—who has much more of a command of French than I do—every now and then would whisper some key plot detail into my ear, just to keep me tangentially moored. So I was especially glad to have a second chance to view Café Lumière (with English subtitles!) at the 2006 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. Unfortunately, however, I had a fever and bad cough by this stage of the festival and halfway through the film had to leave to go home and rest; I was just too sick. As much as I wanted to, I didn't feel I could write it up.

If Michael Hawley has been responsible for awakening my love for world cinema and festival fare, Frako Loden—in her write-ups for the SF Weekly, postings on The WELL, and preview capsules for various Bay Area festival programs—has, without question, furthered and deepened my appreciation of Asian and Asian American film. Thus, it is with particular delight that I offer Frako's recent "rough notes" on Café Lumière to counter my own lack of commentary on this lovely, measured film. What I appreciate about Frako's review is its keen perception of Tokyo's spatiality.

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I just loved Hou Hsiao-hsien's Café Lumière (2003), or (the Japanese or Taiwanese title) Coffee Jikou. I don't know what jikou means—it's a compound I've never seen. Maybe it's Mandarin? It's the ji of toki (time) and the kou of hikari (light).

The story is simple. Yoko (Yo Hitoto), a young woman writer, has come back from one of her many trips to Taiwan, where she has a boyfriend and where she's been doing research about a (real) Taiwanese composer, Jiang Wenye, who lived in Japan most of his life. She lives near Kishibojin-mae station, which is on the Arakawa line. Her friend Hajime (Asano Tadanobu) runs a used book store in Ochanomizu and is a recorder of train sounds. Maybe in that same area they hang out at a cafe called Erika. When she returns from her Taiwan trip, she visits her parents near Yoshii station and they visit her grandparents' graves in Takasaki. Most of the time she travels on the Yamanote line trying to figure out Jiang's haunts while he was alive, like a cafe in Ginza 2-chome that is no longer there (it's Paper House now). She also visits Jiang's widow.

Meanwhile she's pregnant and tells Hajime and her parents. The father is her Taiwanese boyfriend, but she doesn't plan to marry him because he and his mother are too close. His family runs an umbrella factory in Thailand, and he wants Yoko to live with him there. She seems content to give birth and raise the child by herself. Her parents are very concerned, but not much discussion gets accomplished. Her mother urges her father to talk to Yoko, but he pretty much sits and says nothing although you can tell he wants to say something. Instead he offers her chunks of potato from his bowl of nikujaga, which she loves and has her mother bring on a visit.

The film's connections with [Yasujiro] Ozu: Both this and Ozu's films were made at Shochiku Studio. There's a title at the beginning honoring the centenary of his birth (1903). The opening scene is of a person being greeted on a return from a trip (while Tokyo Story's first scene is of a person being greeted just before he leaves on a trip to Tokyo). The film slows down for long shots of passing trains, like so many of Ozu's films do. The film has many scenes of families coming together and having meals or cleaning graves, making casual conversation. There's tension between a father and daughter who obviously have unspoken affection for each other. The camera is still and at the so-called "tatami level" in many scenes. Yoko's parents visit her in Tokyo. She doesn't pack them off to a hot springs resort like the offspring do in Tokyo Story, but there is a divide. For example, she seems more moved by Jiang and his wife's lives than that of her parents.

One of the train lines often featured in the film is the Arakawa line, Tokyo's only surviving above-ground streetcar network. Unlike the subways, the Arakawa line trains are slow, weave through untouristy neighborhoods not destroyed in the 1945 firebombing, and allow riders to view the landscape. It's considered the train line from another era.

Yoko lives on the Arakawa line at Kishibojin-mae station, which is located in front of Kishibojin (or Kishimojin), a Nichiren Buddhist temple housing the goddess who protects mothers and children (formerly the monstrous Indian demon Hariti, a child-kidnapper and devourer who was converted by Buddha. "Now she represents the Buddha's appeal to compassion, and his devotion to the welfare of the weak. Kishimojin is portrayed as a mother suckling her baby and holding a pomegranate in her hand (the symbol of love and feminine fertility)."

It's the temple that Yoko's mother drops by when they first arrive at Yoko's house, making Yoko and her father wait. It's her way of expressing concern for Yoko's unborn child without talking about it. It might also be a habit for her own sake, presumably having no children of her own since Yoko is a stepdaughter. I remember an enormous 600-year-old gingko tree at the temple that is also thought to confer fertility. Just the proximity of Kishibojin to Yoko's home seems to ensure the safe birth of her baby.

[Slant explains that Café Lumière's title is] "a reference to the Lumière Brothers' seminal short film of a train entering a station." Of course the kou of Jikou is translated into lumière in French. Actually Nick Schager's [Slant] review is worth quoting: "As is his hallmark, the director's formal rigorousness takes the form of measured, protracted takes in which the camera detachedly lingers on its protagonists (or, at times, on mundane, uninhabited scenery), and both the general absence of a score and Mark Lee Ping-bin's delicate, naturalistic cinematography—a far cry from his color-saturated work on Hou's Millennium Mambo—create a mood of enveloping serenity."

Yoko and Hajime are a species of Tokyoite depicted in movies who are not alienated by their urban environment. They are like the Angelenos that Phyllis Dietrichson envies so much in Double Indemnity: "It sounds wonderful. Just strangers beside you. You don't know them and you don't hate them." But of those she does know, Yoko has created a comforting environment of supporters. Hajime finds books for her, the master at Cafe Erika serves her hot milk and helps orient her toward the Jiang landmarks in Tokyo that have disappeared. When she rides the trains, she either stands near the front behind the driver's shoulder, watching him and the windscreen, or falling gently asleep. When she feels sick, she slumps against the wall of the platform and tells Hajime she'll be late. Nobody threatens her or looks at her weird. She doesn't shut out her environment with headphones or text messaging.

While watching Café Lumière I kept forgetting that it was directed by someone who doesn't make Tokyo his home. The film is so deeply familiar with its setting and mood somehow. Maybe he shows trains more than somebody who lives there, though. His shots of trains snaking across the landscape hint at an outsider's fascination. But more than any other non-Japanese director, Hou shows how Tokyo is a collection of tiny villages that Tokyoites create for themselves. The Yamanote circle line surrounds the center of Tokyo, the Imperial Palace (the sun), and from the stations on that circle radiate the rays to the outlying parts. So it takes you where you need to go, but it provides a reassuring and teeming "womb" composed of tiny villages, the form Tokyo took centuries ago.

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My thanks to Frako for picking up my slack!! Along with her insightful impressions of Café Lumière, I would further recommend Girish Shambu's comments from the Toronto International Film Festival: "The experience of watching a Hou film does a funny thing to your mind and body. It slows your rhythms right down, and chills you out—not in a narcotic or somnolent fashion, but in a way that sharpens your attention, pulling you deep into the depths of the movie screen."

Also Filmbrain's commentary from the New York Film Festival: "The composition of the family scenes, shot at tatami-level from an almost voyeuristic point outside of the room (door frames often take up a portion of the screen), can be found in nearly all of Ozu's films. There's also a tremendous attention to detail, including several items that appear multiple times and in multiple places throughout the film—clocks, umbrellas, fans, and even milk."

Rouge has published an excerpt from Shigehiko Hasumi's keynote lecture for the Hou Hsiao-hsien conference held last April 2005. Hasumi's excerpt studies the role of trains in the director's oeuvre. "How does Café Lumière depict the railway networks that criss-cross Japan's capital city? The Tokyo of this film, Hou's first foreign work, includes none of the bustle of government and business in the downtown areas, none of the city's skyscrapers, and none of the neon signs of the entertainment districts. Hou's view of the city is characterised, rather, by the fact that his camera ignores completely the expressways that have been the image of cities of the future ever since Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972)." Incidentally, Hasumi is cameoed in Café Lumière as the café waiter delivering coffee to Hajime's bookshop.

In his write-up for Bright Lights Film Journal, Ian Johnston shies away from drawing too many resemblances between Hou and Ozu, and focuses instead—and rather interestingly at that—on their differences and distances. "In the end," Johnston writes, "the differences between Hou's and Ozu's film worlds are as great as their similarities."
04/05/06 Addendum: Meanwhile, Acquarello at Strictly Film School is not as impressed with Café Lumière, opining that "Hou resorts to familiar devices of expounding minimal narrative through telephone conversations, overdistilled ellipses (to the point of incoherence), and distended temps morts." Further, Acquarello comments: "[T]he theory about Ozu shooting his films at tatami level (popularized by Donald Richie) has been disproven by [David] Bordwell and critics like Tadao Sato. The camera height is actually around 18-24" inches, and unless these are small kids, the eye level from a tatami mat would not be that low."
04/10/06 Addendum: Steve at provides a wry rant against the audience that attended his screening of Café Lumière: "[I]f you're obviously drunk and looking for a good time, how do you end up at a movie prominently advertised in the SFIAAFF program as a tribute to I-wouldn't-dare-move-the-camera Yasuhiro Ozu by five-minute-shot-meister Hou Hsiao-Hsien? '...elegant, stark calligraphy of images'? '...often letting silences fill in the lines'? What part of that says, 'nice capper to a wild evening on the town'?"

Steve also provides an appreciative review of the film. "[B]efore watching this film," Steve cautions, "it's important to give up all expectations of a plot. If you take it on its own terms, watching it can be a soft and comforting experience." He furthers: "The earlier you give in and just abide with these people, the more you'll enjoy Café Lumière." He concludes: "[T]his is a film about birth, and it quivers with quiet, yet growing, energy."


Michael Guillen said...

As ever, I remain grateful that Dave Hudson has picked this entry up for the Greencine Daily....

Anonymous said...

FYI, the theory about Ozu shooting his films at tatami level (popularized by Donald Richie) has been disproven by Bordwell and critics like Tadao Sato. The camera height is actually around 18-24" inches, and unless these are small kids, the eye level from a tatami mat would not be that low.

My personal take on it is that this shot height preseves the symmetry of the body whether it is on the forground or the background, so that when people come towards or away from the camera, their proportionality is preserved.

However, when Hou imposes his own shot angle on it (such as the shot when the mother goes toward the refrigerator in the foreground) and breaks with Ozu's angle, that symmetry of framing is broken and as a result, Hou needed to pan upwards to show the mother, a panning shot that particularly looked awkward to me.

Anyway, I know I'm one of the few dissenters when it comes to Café Lumière, but at least it's not completely based on "gut instinct." :)

Michael Guillen said...

Yes, I've heard that alternate point of view; but, didn't want to put any kind of editorial tether on Frako. 8^) Thanks for offering it up, though! I went searching through your site to find a review on "Cafe Lumiere" and didn't locate one. I take it you didn't like the film?

Anonymous said...

I'm more so-so on it than anything; I thought it was gorgeous, but rang hollow for me. I really wanted to like it, but I think I agree closest with the idea that the film should be read separately from Ozu. I came in expecting Hou's take on Ozu, and it really wasn't set up that way. The NYFF sidebar that year was the Ozu centenary as well, so you couldn't help but make the association and try to do compare/contrast (and Hou sort of goads you in this direction too). When the TIFF crowd saw the film, it was without the context of the Ozu retrospective, and I think seeing that film without that kind of "Ozu immersion" going on at the same time probably helped in appreciating the film on its own merits rather than through the filter of Ozu's aesthetics.

I actually do have notes on it from when I still hand coded my journal entries (rather than the new MT blog format) since I'm kinda a stickler for arranging my film viewing journal by the year and didn't want to install the software mid-year. So yeah, old stuff is harder to sort through than the newer ones. :)

Michael Guillen said...

Wonderful to hear your point of view and thanks for the Strictly Film School notes! I'll fold them into the main entry when I get home from press screenings today.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the many takes on Cafe Lumiere. Here's my own brief review:

What struck me most about the film was how it made me feel, which was what I tried mostly to get across to readers. I'm hopeful that broader audiences may get turned on to film like this, although I haven't really honed my reviews for this cause yet.

Michael Guillen said...

Steve, thanks so much for stopping by and for offering your own review, which I found amusingly sad. You ranted quite wryfully!! I thoroughly enjoyed reviewing your comments from 2006 SFAAIFF! It's good to know someone else in the Bay Area is as equally devoted to festival fare as I am!!