(Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan/Japan, 2003)
More from the great, essential series Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsaio Hsien, which arrived in LA, after other stops in the States, in April. I'd seen Café Lumière on DVD years ago, already a certifiable Hou head, and I enjoyed the film but wasn't deeply impressed by it. It was good to see that Hou clearly felt no anxiety about the influence of Ozu (the film was commissioned as a tribute for Ozu's centenary), but the apparent sketchiness, even by Hou's standards of non-event, made it feel like an exercise, or an extended short. The linkage between Hou's meteoric stylistic innovations and Ozu's own radical cinema seemed clear enough to the well-versed viewer, but what was Hou's take? To me, the whole project felt too modest, too politely respectful. I went into this recent screening with the expectation to see more.
And I did find that it clarified things. I'm still catching up with Hou's impish side, which has been probably the single attribute that's been most revealed during this series. In Cafe Lumiere, the long, limpid stretches of everyday activity are punctuated often with sly grace notes of dry humor. Yoko, reserved and initially somewhat mysterious, is revealed by tiny gradations to be a surprisingly rich and strange character. She's independent, following her own obsessions and interests with a quiet and rock-steady confidence, but she's also a kind of bohemian flake. Naturally, these two sides are shown to be related. She's also, we soon find, pregnant, and isn't very interested in making plans for the future, although she appears to have no doubt that she'll raise the child on her own. The father of her child, whom she refers to as her boyfriend, is literally out of the picture; he's back in Taiwan, where Yoko had been working and living, and she repeatedly states that she has no intention of marrying him.
The concern of her parents is genuine, and their worry (in their reserved way) resonates all the more poignantly through its subtlety - neither one of them wants to confront Yoko over her blithe attitude towards impending motherhood. And yet Hou is quick with a wink and a smile - there is also a kind of comedy in their bafflement over her life choices, and their inability to communicate any of this to her. An exemplary sequence, in compositional, tonal, and thematic complexity, comes late in the film. The family is eating dinner, and Yoko is describing, with apparent disdain, even hints of scorn, the way her paramour is tethered to his mother. The mother listens but has little to say, while the father steadily downs sake, getting stoned to avoid what this family dinner seems to be revealing about all involved. He's almost center-frame, sagging visibly from the booze. Yoko, meanwhile, is way off to the right side of the frame, talking more to herself than to anyone else at the table, as she enumerates the boyfriend's shortcomings. Her mother's back is to us, interjecting the occasional comment but unable to penetrate her daughter's quietly defiant and inward mood. The three characters, separated by time, biology (Yoko's biological mother, we learn earlier, left the family when Yoko was still a young child) and physical space. The end of the scene has a punch-line: the umbrellas we keep hearing people thank Yoko for (which we only see hints of; at first mention of this, it feels like a non-sequitur) are in fact from the business that her boyfriend's family runs.
Then there's Hajime, the mild-mannered fellow bohemian. There are occasional hints of some romantic connection between him and Yoko, either past or vaguely in the future, but they are mostly just fellow drifters in the city. The final scene of the film underscores the tentative nature of their relationship. Hajime, who is out on one of his sound-collecting missions, happens to enter the train car where Yoko has fallen asleep. He approaches her, but we don't see if he wakes her up, or her reaction upon seeing him. Hou cuts to them leaving the train, where Hajime continues recording and Yoko stands beside him. They're now together but couldn't be farther apart; despite what they have in common they appear to be, at least in part, on separate tracks. It's a gloriously understated moment, pregnant with potential meaning and yet stubbornly elusive. The next thing we see is a familiar shot of trains diverging and converging over the steady, slow, and opaque waters of an urban canal of some kind. The Ozu-ian notion of trains as the marker of urban modernity, of implacable change and the erosion of traditional society, is alive and well. But through Hou's eyes, there's a luminous range of possibility, a rediscovery of intimate dimensions, that arises from this strange landscape.