Monday, January 09, 2006

CAFE LUMIERE (Hou Hsiao-hsien 2003)

Here's a blurb on it from the Voice poll by the terrific Mark Peranson (read it in its entirety here):

"Hou Hsiao-hsien's vision of contemporary Taipei consists of rock 'n' roll, screaming motorcycles, raves, and dimly lit sex, whereas his Tokyo is sweet and even quaint."

Now here's an IMDb comment (read it in its entirety here):

"Hou shows us a Japan that has changed so much from the Japan that Ozu so painstakingly tries to hold on to by capturing it on his camera. Each tear, each regret, each joy is now lost in a world that tries too hard to change. Wim Wenders first laments this in Tokyo Ga on how banal Tokyo has become and how much of an imitation culture new Japanese culture is. Cafe Lumiere, while not being as impassioned as Wender's masterpiece, is every bit as pensive about its regret of the passing on of the old Japan that Ozu loves so much...In the overwhelmingly modern backdrop of Tokyo, we see how something of the past, like the cafe that Yoko hunts for, that some people so want to preserve, has been turned into another urban development project."

These two sentiments seem to be at odds with one another. Unsurprisingly, I think Peranson is closer to the mark here. Very little in CAFE LUMIERE seemed "overwhelmingly modern." In fact, there's a brief scene where Yoko buys something (forget what) on a narrow street of touristy or trendy-looking shops. THAT scene is overwhelmingly modern. But it stands out in a film of muted colors, relaxing ambient sound, and unpregnant (paradoxical given Yoko's pregnancy) moments. Even the copious meditations on trains seem somehow (hate this word but) organic. The last shot of trains working their way through the city resembles a cut away of worms slithering in and out of underground dirt tunnels.

It appears, then, that some viewers must invoke an agrarian/suburban Ozu (one where women apparently "knew their place" a bit more) to pinpoint what Hou's film is "about" - namely, a mourning for a pre-pomo globalization time and space. But the visual/sonic evidence simply doesn't bear this out. As Peranson suggests, Hou looks and listens on this Tokyo with more of a sense of delight than sadness. In this regard, Hajime is Hou's rather obvious surrogate in the film. Hajime records the sounds of different trains because, despite all of them being products of Fordist modernity, each has their own unique, irreducible
aura (it's a bit odd to write "each" in reference to trains here but appropriate in Hou's hands). Similarly, Hou infuses his spaces and sounds with a bit of auratic experience.

How does he does this? I'm not sure although my immediate impulse is to suggest that he achieves it by refusing to burden Tokyo with the traditional narrative function of mere setting. Still, that leaves me with little to say as to what the film may be about although I'm not sure "aboutness" is what Hou's about. I love this post to an IMDb messge board responding to the question "What is this movie about...?" (read it here):

"You know how sometimes you see a film so big and full and immersing that by the time it ends you feel kinda empty (for most people it's the Lord of the rings or Matrix or Star wars type of films)? well, (CAFE LUMIERE) is so empty that in the end, it makes you you feel full. I remember feeling more refreshed and alive after this film, than any other film i had ever seen. I can't really explain why though... It's like magic..."

Beautifully put, methinks, and my sentiments exactly. While watching it, I was typically bored, fell asleep a few times (never a negative sign in my book nor in Peranson's as he attests to in another Voice blurb). At the end, it seemed like minor Hou. But I soon started to miss it like a friend. Or maybe it was more architectural than that, missed it like I missed my Austin apt. during Xmas. I am willing to admit that this state of mind is a direct result of the fact that I returned the DVD to the video store without having burned myself a copy. If I have it around "for good," will my longing for it stop? Who knows? In short, recollecting the film now, I do not know exactly what I am full of. I hope it's not shit (ha! beat ya to it!). But I'm not sure pinpointing that fullness is the key to loving Hou.


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