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With: Yo Hitoto, Tadanobu Asano, Masato Hagiwara, Kimiko Yo, Nenji Kobayashi
Written by: Hou Hsiao-hsien, Chu T'ien-wen
Directed by: Hou Hsiao-hsien
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
Running Time: 103
Date: 10/12/2003

Café Lumière (2003)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Train of Fools

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

True, hardcore cineastes know that the most acclaimed filmmaker in the world today isn't Steven Spielberg or Ang Lee.

It's Taiwanese-born Hou Hsiao-hsien, and part of his appeal must be that, to date, only one of his films has received distribution in the United States. Even then, Millennium Mambo (2001) arrived three years late and played for about a week before disappearing.

But the 55 year-old director's films have appeared in many of the world's most prestigious film festivals and he was the subject of a 1999 retrospective here in the Bay Area. He is perhaps best known for his more recent films, The Puppetmaster (1993), Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996) and Flowers of Shanghai (1998), but there are certain fans who believe that he peaked in the 1980s with films like The Time to Love and the Time to Die (1984), Dust in the Wind (1986) and City of Sadness (1989).

Hou has already made a new film (Three Times) whose fate in American theaters is still up for grabs. But his previous film, Café Lumière -- which placed on a few New York and Boston ten best lists for 2005 -- has recently been released on DVD. It's a magnificent achievement that deserves a look.

Café Lumière marks a bit of a departure for Hou, his first time working for a big studio. But this was a special occasion. The Japanese studio Shochiku, which produced most of Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu's films, commissioned Hou to make a tribute film upon the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Ozu's birth.

Hou begins with a couple of Ozu-like shots of clotheslines and moving trains before jumping into his wandering tale of a 23 year-old freelance writer, Yoko (Yo Hitoto), who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. She arrives at her parents' place and makes the announcement, that the father is Taiwanese and that she has no intention of marrying him. Her parents, perhaps products of Ozu's generation, do not understand.

At the same time, Yoko is working on a story about a Taiwanese-born composer and enlists the aid of her friend, Hajime (Tadanobu Asano). Hajime runs a used bookstore and is obsessed with recording the sounds of trains.

Café Lumière unfolds in a typical Hou style, with long, static shots in which characters may leave and/or return to the frame without the camera moving. The characters reveal a bit about their inner lives when Yoko tells Hajime about a dream she's had, and he produces a children's book (Outside Over There, by Maurice Sendak) that accurately describes her dream. Later, Hajime shows Yoko a computer desktop he's made depicting a small boy surrounded by a "womb" of trains.

Ozu generally made films (at least in his later period, the era of Early Summer, Tokyo Story, Floating Weeds, Good Morning) that showed family traditions crumbling around the newer generation. Hou is perhaps more concerned with the dispassionate new generation, the members of which are looking for something in which to be interested.

In addition, Ozu liked to use trains as part of his trademark "pillow shots," which came between the regular narrative scenes to provide a kind of brief rest, but Hou uses trains as a metaphor. Always on the move, always looking ahead, they provide a kind of comfort for those who wish to avoid the present.

Like all Hou films, viewers will want to ponder Café Lumière and its many layers well after this year's Oscars have come and gone.

DVD Details: Wellspring's new DVD comes with a crisp, clear letterboxed transfer, in Japanese with optional English subtitles. Extras include a fascinating 50-minute documentary about the making of the film, as well as interviews with cast and crew members.

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