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Cafe Lumiere

Director: Hou Hsaio-hsien

Japan-Taiwan| 2003. English subtitles. Colour. Dolby digital stereo. 103 min.


Commissioned by the Japanese studio Shochiku to mark the centenary of their great director Yasujiro Ozu, the latest from leading Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsaio-hsien is like most of the limpidly beautiful work of its esteemed dedicatee, a quietly understated domestic drama. Hou’s compelling, minimalist style makes Ozu look decidedly demonstrative by comparison. We follow his youthful protagonist (Japanese pop star Hitoto Yo making her film debut) who’s just returned to Tokyo from a study trip to Taipei, where she managed to get herself pregnant by her Taiwanese boyfriend. While formulating her next move, she visits her parents in the country and re-establishes contact with her city friends, but in a country where emotional reticence is a way of life, crisis management doesn’t come easily.
It’s a film about the deep feelings behind silences, and how the proliferation of modern communications technology—she’s always on the phone, Asano’s working on his own website—doesn’t necessarily foster deeper human contact. Fast-paced it ain’t, but Hou’s characteristic technique of long-held shots as ordinary people do ordinary things, offers an authentic sense of the textures of everyday experience in the Japanese capital, where the odd old-fashioned cafe provides a space for contemplation amid the bewildering transport system, and the buzz of constant activity makes it harder and harder to get any purchase on the rapidly vanishing past. The emotional dilemmas at the core of the story give it its heart, but the city is the star, and this softly-spoken but haunting film could equally be called Hou’s own Tokyo Story.

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