Café Lumière Review

Café Lumière was commissioned as an homage to Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu to commemorate the centenary of his birth. Certainly, it shares certain stylistic tropes and themes familiar from the great director’s work – the low placed camera (much discussed in Wim Wender’s own Ozu homage Toyko-Ga); the static shots; familial relationships between the generations – yet such connections shouldn’t be considered too highly. Indeed, it’s important not to distract oneself from director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s own contribution; whilst this may be his first film to be made in Japan – no doubt wholly the result of the Ozu connection – is it not true that he would have most likely made this work, or one ostensibly similar, anyhow?

For it is Hou’s own approach which remains integral to Café Lumière’s own qualities, though it seamlessly blends in with Ozu’s own. It’s one which is decidedly minimal in the manner in which it picks up on the minutiae of people’s lives, the rhythms of their conversations and the like, with an almost documentary-like eye. His is not a film of grand revelations or major developments, rather he sits back and almost eavesdrops on his chosen characters. At the centre of Café Lumière is Yoko, a researcher who also happens to be three months pregnant, yet such details come across as almost apologetic when revealed. Had this been a mainstream American work, say, no doubt the latter would have forced some clichéd familial melodramatics. Here, however, the overall reserve becomes almost as intense owing to its comparative rarity.

Indeed, the impression given is that Hou is coming into scenes too early and leaving them too late. Much of the time we simply see Yoko moving from one place to the other, whether that be walking to a bookshop or travelling on the rail system. The less accommodating would perhaps cynically suggest that this is simply because Hou doesn’t have enough of substance to work with, yet this would be incredibly unfair. These moments are extremely important as it is here where we truly get to know the characters. They may not offer anything that could be considered truly concrete, but they do allow us to get under their skins.

Moreover, this approach also allows Hou to investigate Japan and thus make Café Lumière an extremely beautiful film to watch. The compositions may be low-key in their execution, yet there’s also something incredibly rich about them which recalls the Patrick Keiller of London, in particular, and Robinson in Space. Indeed, much like those works it’s an approach which continually has us investigating the frame for further details.

Whether they yield much information, however, is a different matter and on an initial viewing it can be difficult to ascertain exactly what Hou is trying to achieve. It’s a wonderfully engaging work and blessed with some terrifically charming performances from its leads, but it’s also likely to require repeat viewings before it truly has an affect. We could, perhaps, read Hou into the character of Yoko’s brother. A trainspotter who records the sounds of Japan’s rail network on his minidisc player, towards the end of the picture he is asked “Are you trying to capture the essence? Are there some clues in the[re]?”

The Disc

Café Lumière comes to the UK DVD market in disappointing condition. Unlike the Taiwanese Region 3 release reviewed here by Noel Megahey, it comes without special features or a choice of soundtracks, though shares its non-anamorphic presentation. As such we get a barebones disc available with only a stereo mix, burnt-in subs and lacklustre image. It would appear that the film is also an NTSC to PAL transfer, though admittedly this seems less immediately apparent than has been the case. That said, we still get a certain lack of definition during the darker moments and less clarity than we should perhaps expect. In the disc’s favour we do get a clean print, one which is complemented by an equally clear soundtrack, though it’s difficult not to feel some disappointment especially as this is currently the only film of Hou’s to gain a DVD release on these shores.

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