I admit that went I first began to devour foreign cinema and specifically got into the Japanese masters like Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, Imamura, and such, I did not like Yasujiro Ozu. His films lacked any visual bravado and seemed to be psychologically simple and dramatically pat, so much so that the first Ozu films I saw seemed to run together. Despite initially not liking his work, I still knew that it was singular and it was clear he was working on his own wavelength. That it something I appreciated and, even if I still wouldn't like his style, made me anxious to figure him out. It wasn't until I got older and reconsidered his films that I realized just what exactly Ozu was aiming for and all of the reasons that make him a master film maker.
Though he had two stages in his career, defined by pre-WW2 and post-WW2 Japan, Ozu's voice, be it sweetly comic, quietly dramatic, or just plain melancholy and bittersweet, and what he talked about was always the same. It is arguable, but there simply may be no better film maker who was magnetically concerned with themes of his countries culture, familial matters, traditional estrangement, and societal change. Though his approach seemed to be, on the surface, very minimal, the depth and richness of how he captured everyday life and human behavior was extraordinary.
There may be no better choice than Taiwanese film maker Hou Hsiao-hsien to do a tribute to Ozu. Over the course of his entire career, films like All the Youthful Days, Goodbye South Goodbye, and The Flowers of Shanghai, Hou Hsiao-hsien's work seemed to be inspired both narratively and visually by Ozu; reflected by Hou Hsiao-hsien's penchant for tales of secular rootlessness and use of long, near static camera setups and the hypnotic way he captures beauty in the most mundane environs.
Cafe Lumiere opens with the Shochiku company film logo, the studio that Ozu made most of his films with. This gentle, understated film concerns Yoko (Yo Hitoto), a young writer who is currently researching Taiwanese composer Jiang Wen-ye. She has just returned from a trip to Taiwan. While she is hanging up her laundry, she talks to a friend on the phone, describing a dream she had about a baby with a face of ice. The next day she visits Hajime (Tadanobu Asano, hands down Japan's go-to young actor) a friend who runs a little bookshop. She then goes to visit her parents, lazily falls asleep while her mother is cooking, and then matter of factly announces that she is pregnant, by her Taiwanese boyfriend, whom she doesn't want to marry, and she is keeping the baby.
Actually, I could sum up what happens in the rest of the film in about two or three sentences. Hou Hsiao-hsien is like that, careful, minimal. There is no dramatic hysteria. It almost feels like watching a documentary where everything is hinted and suggested, like Hajime's and Yoko's unspoken crush on each other which is acted out under the motions of friendship, sharing a cup of tea, looking at Hajime's laptop art, or Hajime bringing a sick Yoko a meal and sitting with her. Yoko's parents worry over her decision to raise the child without a husband, without sufficient financial means, and that the burden will a carry over to them just as her father is about to enter retirement. But, in a very Ozu-ish moment between parents and their child, they go to confront her, to try and rationalize with her, but the generational gap is so wide that it ends with them reticent, silently listening as Yoko calmly lists all the unwavering facts as to why she wont change her mind.
Hou Hsiao-hsien understands, like Ozu did, that the rhythm of life, even life in conflict, is generally much more simple, subtle, and paced than most dramatic cinema would have you beleive. There can be turbulance and volumes spoken in the slightest minutia. He's got some great actors and the laid back style has them appearing as natural as can be in the scenic Japanese settings, every angle, every locale, reinforcing the urban isolation of the characters. The one thing the film misses is the emotional impact that Ozu had, and you get the feeling that Hou Hsiao-hsien is more in riffing mode and operating with the reigns on rather than aiming for some real substance. Ozu was always very realized, whereas Hou Hsiao-hsien operates on a much more sketched level. But, even though Hou Hsiao-hsien falls a tad short of capturing the profoundness of Ozu, Cafe Lumiere is a pleasant enough ode to a master.
The DVD: Wellspring.
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Hou Hsiao-hsien is very conscious of his films look and the transfer maintains a pretty good reproduction of his natural lighting, realism tinged style. Again, keeping in terms with the style, colors are a tad muted and the contrast maintains fairly middling blacks. Sharpness details are quite good. Unfortunately, the disc is non-progressive which results in some lacking definitions and problems like motion blurring in several scenes. At least, according to all the reports I've read, the image is an improvement over the Region 0 Sino release.
Sound: Japanese 2.0 Stereo. Optional English subtitles. Good presentation of a sparse but effective mix. Nice atmospherics and clear dialogue. The score is also very simple, but effective in its use, dropping in various piano pieces from Jiang Wen-je.
Extras: Trailer— Interviews: Actress Yo Hitoto (9:43), actor Tadanobu Asano (8:37), and writer/director Hou Hsiao-hsien (8:14).— Metro Lumiere program "Hou Hsiao-hsien Meets Yasujiro Ozu" (59:28).
Now, these extras are really great. The interview segments, while brief, give good insight into the making of the film, particularly Tadanobu Asano and Yo Hitoto's comments on their director. But the Metro Lumiere French doc is a fascinating look at Hou Hsiao-hsien's work and, in particular, his thoughts on Ozu (like me, he started off not liking Ozu) and the peculiarity of being a Taiwanese making a film in Japan, in tribute to a Japanese film maker.
Conclusion: Unfortunately, at least in terms of the transfer being less than perfect, Hou Hsiao-hsien's work continues to get rather lackluster DVD treatment. But, thankfully, this release of Cafe Lumiere offers relief in the other area that Hou Hsiao-hsien's US DVD releases lack- you get some excellent extras. So, while the rest is middling and flawed, the extras really make this an essential purchase for any fan of the man's work and definitely a good start for newbies. Oh yeah, and the movie is a pretty good peice of minimalist cinema, sure to please those who enjoy the genre.