Cafe Lumiere

Last week I watched Hou Hsiao Hsien’s film Café Lumiere (2003) for the second time. Like Andrey Tarkovsky, Hou Hsiao Hsien creates a film that captures the passage of time in the lives of its characters, bringing us close to the actual experience of living their lives, with all it’s ordinariness and little joys. This is not cinema that is meant to entertain and take the viewer away from himself, but cinema that captures life as it is, becoming a serene, austere visual poem.

The film depicts the life of a Japanese girl called Yoko. Yoko works as a researcher in Taiwan and has a boyfriend there, but also spends much of her time in Tokyo, where this film is shot. We experience Yoko’s life as she visits her friend Hajime, who runs a bookstore, and discusses her dreams with him. We also see a visit to her parents who live in a suburb of the city.


Much of the film is about the experience of ordinary, daily life. Yoko stands in a train, looks out of the window at the scenery passing by, and other people walk around her in the train. Life is going on, as usual. In another train, her friend Hajime  stands with a little microphone in his hand, recording the sounds on the train – the engine, the sounds of passengers, the sounds on the station, and so on. Yoko reaches her parents’ house, and they sit on the floor, around a low table, and have dinner quietly.

Café Lumiere quietly observes the passage of life – the withdrawn girl, the distant relations in the family, the easy camaraderie between Yoko and her friend, the passage of trains in Tokyo city – perfect like clockwork, but also mechanical and inanimate like clockwork. Like a Buddhist meditator silently watching his emotions appear in consciousness and then dissipate, to be followed by other emotions, the film observes life passing by, in all its ordinariness, without once attempting to grab a portion of it which seems more interesting than the others and highlighting it.

The result is a serene and gentle telling, which, paradoxically, captures intensely the very texture of its characters’ being. When the camera does nothing, the intensity of the most mundane experiences of the protagonists’ life is felt. In one scene, Hajime enters a train and notices Yoko sitting at the end of the coach, he goes to her happily, but when he reaches her he realises that she is sleeping. Hajime smiles, and just looks at Yoko sleeping, without disturbing her for the rest of the journey. Nothing is said, no dramatic action occurs. But their quite companionship and affection for each other comes through in scenes like this.

What also comes through is Yoko’s introversion and alienation from the world, a distance that is always maintained between her and the world.  We see that the relationship between her and her parents is cordial, but distant. A generation has passed between them, her values are not theirs, their values are not hers. When she tells them about her pregnancy and wish to be a single mother, the parents are unable to say much to her, despite their obvious inability to understand the choices their daughter is making.

The experience of watching this film carries a sign of authenticity, for there is no attempt to impress the viewer, to impose an emotion on him, but just to capture life as it is, in all its ordinariness. Viewers may be left wanting something more stimulating, but that is perhaps life itself, not always as interesting as we would like it to be. Hou Hsiao Hsien’s faithfulness to reality leaves a mark on the psyche, for it is rarely that the cinema screen presents life in such an authentic manner. The film is almost plotless and no dramatic action occurs, yet, one is left with the sense of having seen something as teeming with life as is possible.

~ by tdcatss on June 2, 2012.

3 Responses to “Cafe Lumiere”

  1. Indeed, the film is like a song of adoration from Hou to Ozu. Thanks for the read!

  2. thanks matt. the only ozu film i’ve seen is tokyo story, and i can see the similarity both in plot (conflicting values within the family) and style (the staid, placid style). at the same time, i do feel that hou hsiao hsien takes that style much further than ozu in tokyo story. this film reminded me of the likes of tarkovsky and tsai ming liang.

    i haven’t seen any other hou hsiao hsien films and i really wonder what they would be like. would you recommend any?

  3. Well, if you’re already accepting of Tarkovsky’s style, then I’ll skip some of the more accessible Hou titles (Daughter of the Nile is what I generally recommend to people who don’t have any previous experience with the Taiwanese New Wave). It’s difficult to get ahold of many of his films, but A City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster are both available on Region 1.

    What comparisons are you drawing between Cafe and Tarkovsky other than the temporal element? It’s an interesting idea. I’d like to hear more.

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