Café Lumière movie review

A young woman researches late Taiwanese composer, Jiang Wen-Ye, while her parents fret about her pregnancy, and her friend obsesses over trains.

Only 만: ★★★★★

Side Dish: If you’re not lucky enough to spend your working hours in a café, Pocket Coffee might be the quick caffeine hit you need. It’s a seasonal product, but, since this is the season you should be able to find it (I found it on Amazon, but I’m sure there’s other outlets).

Nothing much happens in Café Lumière, and yet it’s a surprisingly hard film to write a short review about. Freelance writer Yoko (Yo Hitoto) returns from Taiwan, undramatically announces to her parents that she’s pregnant, and wanders around Tokyo doing research about Taiwanese composer, Jiang Wen-Ye in the company of her friend, Hajime-chan (Tadanobu Asano), And, that’s about it in terms of story.

But, it’s really in the details that Café Lumière shines. Filmed as an homage to legendary Japanese film-maker, Yasujiro Ozu, Café Lumière gives a glimpse of Yoko’s mundane daily life in Tokyo, drained of the tension that usually accompanies Ozu’s family dramas.

Ozu was preoccupied with the tension between modern Japan and traditional values as played out in families. In this film, modern Tokyo and traditional family life have a much more harmonious relationship; Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien is more preoccupied with his characters than sticking to Ozu’s script. As an example, the pregnant Yoko rejects the idea of marrying her Taiwanese boyfriend, not wanting to take the role of helpmeet, but has a good relationship with her own parents, even going so far as to show up to clean her family grave.

Ozu’s influence is more visible in the static camera. The opening shot consists of Yoko hanging her laundry while on the phone with Hajime-chan, the camera resting comfortably behind her as she works, giving the viewer a feeling of being an unobtrusive on-looker. Entire scenes are filmed from behind, and some are so still that any motion takes centre stage, as in the scene where Yoko’s visit to Hajime-chan’s used bookstore is entirely upstaged by his restless dog in the background.

Yoko’s daily life is hardly the stuff of high drama, and yet, it’s somehow absorbing to watch her wander the more mundane corners of Tokyo, visiting cafés, puttering around her neighbourhood, visiting her parents, dropping in on her landlady to borrow sake, or taking the train. In fact, Yoko spends a third of the film on trains (a preoccupation both Ozu and Hou share), an activity that becomes meditative, in Hou’s hands. It’s a rarely seen side of Tokyo in film, an undramatic landscape of daily life.

Jiang Wen-Ye is a palpable presence in the film, since his music serves as the score. The only moment in the entire film shot in close-up is when Yoko interviews his real-life Japanese wife and daughter. Little actual information is given about him in the film, but hearing his wife speak of their intimate relationship is an affecting introduction to a man with a very complex life.

I don’t know if this comes across in my review to this point, but I’ll say it bluntly now: Café Lumière is a fantastic movie; an artful meditation on Tokyo and the passing of time. Kudos to the director for creating something that’s at once mundane and beautiful.

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