Hou honors the master while remaining true to his own vision
The 100th anniversary of the birth of Yasujiro Ozu on December 12, 1903 has seen the release of films by two major international art cinema directors — Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-hsien — that are explicit homages to Ozu. In the case of Kiarostami’s Five (2003), the connection with Ozu is remote to say the least: a 74-minute film consisting of five static shots of the seashore, its willful denial of Kiarostami’s own strengths as a narrative filmmaker makes it little more than an interesting experiment, more at home in the art gallery than the cinema. And the connection with Ozu? Perhaps a sympathetic yet restrained contemplation of the world in front of the camera, but nothing more.
Café Lumière (2003) is another case entirely. For starters, it was commissioned by Shochiku, the Japanese production company for which Ozu made most of his films. So Café Lumière‘s first shot — in Ozu’s Academy ratio rather than the widescreen of the rest of the film — is the old colour Shochiku Mount Fuji logo that we know from the start of the last four films (the only ones in colour) that Ozu made for Shochiku: Equinox Flower (1958), Good Morning (1959), Late Autumn (1960), and An Autumn Afternoon (1962).
Furthermore, the central character of Yoko (above right, played by Japanese pop star Yo Hitoto in her first film performance) is a clear reference to similar young women from later Ozu films, forced to come to decisions related to their future, their family, and marriage. Perhaps, too, Yoko’s unmarried pregnancy is an allusion to the situation of Akiko (above left) in Tokyo Twilight (1957); and when Yoko’s parents visit her and she borrows sake from the next-door neighbour, are we meant to be reminded of a similar scene with Noriko (Setsuko Hara) in Tokyo Story (1953)? A more distant echo comes in the scene when Yoko and her family clean the family gravestones — whether deliberate or not, the cawing crows on the soundtrack brought to my mind the final scenes of The End of Summer (1961).
So in Café Lumière there are some parallels with Ozu’s world, but there is also considerable distance, just as there is distance between the films of Ozu and those of Hou. Much has been made of the parallels, if not direct influences, between Ozu’s and Hou’s work. Hou apparently only discovered Ozu in the late eighties — that is, after The Boys from Fengkuei (1983), Hou’s fourth feature and the film that marked a major change in his filmmaking practice. This saw the evolution of a consistent style, marked predominantly by a medium/long-shot long-take aesthetic, which reached its first major artistic and critical success with The Time to Live and the Time to Die (1985), again before Hou’s discovery of Ozu. Still, by the time of Good Men, Good Women (1995), Hou could include a direct homage to the Japanese director: the television in the main character’s apartment can be seen playing Late Spring (1949).
Nonetheless, there are real differences between the two directors. Above all, it should be remembered (particularly in light of Paul Schrader’s influential argument ascribing transcendentalist philosophy to his work and aligning it with the magnificent but decidedly minority-taste work of Bresson and Dreyer) that Ozu was a director making films for a popular audience (a pre-television, mass cinema-going audience). You only have to sit in a packed cinema watching Good Morning to appreciate that! Hou is one of contemporary cinema’s major directors and Café Lumière is an exquisite film (minor, perhaps, in the context of his work as a whole, but a near-flawless, miniature-like gem, and far more successful than the disappointing Millennium Mambo, 2002); but his work and this film are decidedly in the mode of the serious art film, with almost no concessions made to the popular audience. Generally, in fact, the only concessions Hou seems to make to a mass audience are the casting of pop stars and the often inappropriate inclusion of a pop song over the end credits, as is the case with Café Lumière.
Questions of film language reflect this difference between the two directors. Critical writing on Ozu is fascinated with and concentrates on the formal qualities of his cinema, especially when they deviate from the dominant “rules” of filmmaking. One prominent feature is his positioning of the camera at a lower height than usual, below the level of the actors’ faces (the so-called “tatami shot,” as if viewing the action seated on a tatami mat, above, from Early Spring). There is also his consistent crossing of the 180° line in his shot/reverse shot editing, as such an absolute violation of mainstream filmmaking practice; and there’s the emphasis given to the formal composition of the shot, to the extent that objects will be rearranged, quite unrealistically, in order to provide similar compositions in successive shots. And there are the famous “pillow shots,” the series of “still life” shots that open a film and interrupt and bridge the narrative at various points (and that some critics argue — quite wrongly, in my opinion — are abstract and emptied of narrative meaning).
All these formal strategies are absolutely fascinating, and they are an integral part of what makes Ozu so great. However, there’s a tendency to overvalue these strategies because, on a theoretical level, they constitute such a radical break with mainstream filmmaking; and to forget that a general audience may not even notice these formal differences. That audience responds to the subject matter and the tone in which it is treated: a warm, sympathetic, humanistic, often humorous portrayal of everyday family-centred life. It’s a cinema that’s entirely accessible to an audience beyond the art-cinema crowd (as long as they’re open, of course, to a gently paced, subtitled movie from a half a century ago).
My point here is to stress the real differences between Ozu and Hou, differences that are apparent in the strategies adopted for narrating a film’s story, in the editing, and in what kind of shots predominate in a sequence. In contrast to Ozu’s tight and structured narrative and cutting patterns within scenes (remember, Ozu is not a director of the long take) that draw the viewer into a close emotional involvement in the story and characters, Hou’s cinema is one of distance. The viewer is held back, slightly disengaged from what is happening on the screen, by both an often oblique narrative and the extremely long takes Hou is inclined to use. The shots are not only long, but they often lack any fixed centre — the narrative focus is always uncertain, as the characters may leave the frame or the camera may shift one way or another to explore new elements. This is magnificent filmmaking — which has reached its apogee in the masterpiece Flowers of Shanghai (1998) — and it’s a cinema that’s both demanding and immensely rewarding, but there should be no surprise at the limited audience Hou reaches. Even in Taiwan that audience is minimal today — long gone are the days of the box-office success of City of Sadness (1989), when Hou’s filmmaking coincided with an opening up in Taiwanese politics and society and found a receptive mass audience.
Café Lumière‘s minimal story gets underway in its third shot. So, after the opening shot of the Academy-ratio Shochiku logo and a shot of a passing train (the film’s organising motif), we are given an interior shot of Yoko’s apartment. Here Hou establishes the indicative style of the film: a long take, here shooting out onto the balcony (the source of the light that suffuses the room); quiet observation of everyday actions — hanging out washing, answering the phone, answering the front door; and, most significantly, the awareness of off-screen space — Yoko goes to the front door and has a brief conversation with her neighbour, none of which is seen on-screen. This strategy is replicated identically in the later shot when her parents visit and her stepmother exits the frame to pay for the sushi being delivered at the front door.
The first shot we have of the interior of Yoko’s parents’ house (she pays them a visit early on in the film’s story) is the closest we come to something reminiscent of Ozu. It’s a wide shot of the living room, with the characteristic Japanese low table in centre frame, but Hou has still made this shot his own. It’s shot from outside, and a good third of the frame on the right is taken up by the French windows that Hou uses to extend the space of the shot. It’s in this glass that we see the reflection of Yoko’s arrival in her father’s car. On a formal level this sequence is also highly structured, for the following shot is an exact 180° reverse, still showing the living room but now looking to the world outside (“Outside Over There,” perhaps the title of the Maurice Sendak children’s book that is the source of Yoko’s later dream).
This shot/180° reverse shot structure is also used in the small bookshop run by Yoko’s friend Hajime (Tadanobu Asano). Here, however, it’s in two separate scenes. The first scene is a single take, looking down the narrow bookshop with Hajime behind the small table at the end. The second scene is another single take, this time reversed 180° from behind Hajime’s table. (This second scene also offers a cameo appearance by film critic Shiguehiko Hasumi — author of an excellent book on Ozu only available in the West in French — playing a café waiter delivering coffee.)
And what of the story itself? Yoko has just returned from Taiwan as part of her research on the life of Jiang Wenye, a Taiwanese-born composer who studied and composed in Japan in the 1920s and ’30s and married a Japanese wife. (The film doesn’t reveal the details of how he abandoned his wife and moved to Beijing in 1938, never to return to either Japan or Taiwan.) The story then follows Yoko in her continuing research and her interactions with a very restricted number of characters, principally the bookshop owner Hajime and her father and stepmother.
Obviously, this Taiwanese connection is the means by which Hou and his scriptwriter Chu Tien-wen can enter into the contemporary world of Café Lumière — Hou’s first foreign-language film, in a language he doesn’t understand. At times, there’s definitely an outsider’s perspective operating. A Japanese filmmaker would surely never dwell so long on the streams of passersby at the train stations or in the streets, let alone offer the repeated shots of fascinated close-ups of a train driver’s white-gloved hands. But Hou and Chu have made these characters their own.
First, there’s a strong awareness of history running through the film that ties it to much of Hou’s other work. Yoko’s research is the primary thread, involving her interviewing others for their memories of the past — a café owner, a bookshop owner, Jiang Wenye’s Japanese wife — and visiting sites connected with Jiang Wenye. She brings back from Taiwan a present for Hajime that has both appeal for Hajime himself (he has a major interest in trains) and considerable historical associations. It’s a watch that commemorates the 116th anniversary of the founding of Taiwan’s railways. Hajime himself gives a historical perspective to his hobby of recording the sounds of trains. Whereas Yoko suggests that he is doing this in order to search for the “essence of trains,” he imagines someone in the future using his work as a historical record. So, a timeline constantly runs through the film, connecting past, present, and future.
Yoko already has a connection with the future in the form of the child she is now carrying. She’s just returned to Japan, pregnant by her Taiwanese boyfriend, and her reaction to this is the clearest sign of Café Lumière‘s distance from Ozu’s work; of the distance of young contemporary Japanese from their counterparts in Ozu’s time; and of how distant Hou and Chu’s vision of their characters is from that of Ozu and his co-scriptwriter Kogo Noda.
Yoko informs her parents that she is going to keep this child, but she is not going to marry the father. There’s no sense that she in any way proposes to consult them for advice or talk the issue through with them, let alone defer to an elder in the more traditional Confucian fashion. The interconnectedness of the Ozu family, the way the crises or issues at stake are always talked through by an often shifting group of family members, is gone here. The film completely validates the individual acting in and for herself. However, it’s not that Yoko is disconnected from any sense of family obligation — we learn, for example, that she is going to pick up her uncle when he comes to Tokyo for an eye operation. Rather, primacy is given to Yoko as an individual irrespective of any family ties or obligations.
It’s characteristic that Yoko’s major objection to marrying her Taiwanese boyfriend seems to be the closeness of his relationship with his mother — she even mocks the way the mother accompanied her son when he first went to the States for postgraduate study. At a later point in the film, Yoko even declares to Hajime that parents are not necessary, as a reflection, no doubt, of the way her own mother abandoned her and her father (another parallel with Akiko in Tokyo Twilight). As for Hajime himself, the film provides him with no family connections whatsoever.
In fact, what little narrative drive Café Lumière‘s exquisite minimalism has is dedicated to bringing these two very individualistic modern Japanese together, expressed through the running train motif taken from Ozu. The film’s first shot, following the old-style Shochiku logo, shows a train traveling from left to right, shot low-angle, ending on a slow fade-out. It’s reminiscent, while being by no means imitative, of the opening sequence from Tokyo Story. From then on, trains become the connecting motif, both providing an underlying structure and being the means by which connections are made between characters and with locations. Hajime provides an image of this himself with the graphic design page on his notebook computer, a web of train lines and station names with Hajime himself in the centre.
These connecting trains form an integral part of urban life, but Hou’s portrayal of the experience of urban living is very different from, for example, his fellow Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang. Tsai’s characters in a film like Vive l’Amour (1994) are not only on their own but also isolated, lonely, frustrated, and alienated, and the city itself is portrayed as an objective correlative of this subjective experience. Yoko and Hajime, on the other hand, may be living an isolated, solo life, but this is viewed entirely positively as an expression of their inner strength, self-reliance, and value as discrete individuals. Moreover, they still have connections/relations with other people; they’re just not prepared to compromise the integrity of their individuality.
Yoko and Hajime are obviously set up as a potential romantic couple, but although Café Lumière is never explicit or crass about this, it uses its train motif to imply this kind of resolution to the story. The railway “connection” between the two is symbolised early on with the present Yoko gives Hajime on her return from Taiwan — the watch commemorating the 116th anniversary of the founding of the Taiwanese railway system. More significantly, there is one railway scene that Hou’s camera repeatedly returns to: a river on the left, railway tracks to the right, a railway bridge in the background, a railway tunnel (when the camera chooses to tilt down) in the lower foreground.
The first time we see this shot is when Yoko is on her way to meet Hajime and is held up by an attack of morning sickness. Hou’s initial shot of a train crossing the railway bridge tilts down to reveal Hajime in long shot, waiting at the station by the track on the right. The connection Hou draws — from Yoko at one station, then via a train traveling from left to right, to Hajime waiting at another — is clear.
This riverside railway shot returns following a scene where Yoko looks in vain for Hajime in their neighbourhood and shows two trains traveling together along parallel tracks. This is a precursor to a later shot of Yoko and Hajime standing by the windows of parallel trains, neither noticing the other. This scene of Yoko and Hajime missing one another is then redeemed in the film’s final section. This time Hajime gets on the same train as Yoko. She’s dozed off and he stands quietly, delicately, in front of her until she awakens. In wordless empathy they both then exit the train together.
Hajime is here to record more train sounds, this time from the station platform. At first Yoko holds herself back, then moves forward, as the two are joined together in this one activity. This union is then reinforced with a cut to a train passing in front of us and the two glimpsed standing together behind this passing train; and the film moves from this one train to a final generalised shot of trains traveling in another motif riverside shot, which slowly fades out.
All the strengths of Café Lumière are here: the subtle, underplayed narrative style; the way Hou generates the meaning of his Tokyo story visually rather than through dialogue; the slightly distanced perspective that enhances the delicate beauty of the film. In the end, the differences between Hou’s and Ozu’s film worlds are as great as their similarities. But if these two great directors are traveling along separate though parallel lines, this journey with Hou is nothing less than a magnificent one.