The Light Outside the Window
Genevieve Yue on Café Lumière

Commissioned for the centenary of Ozu’s birth, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Café Lumière (2003) opens with the image of Mount Fuji turning from deep red to brilliant white, a logo best remembered from Ozu’s last four films at Shochiku. The view is startling, in part for the boldness of its mid-century palette and also for placing Hou’s project so definitively in the tradition of the Japanese master. Quickly replacing the vibrant sunrise, however, is Hou’s own muted dawn, which fades up on a train passing through the early morning light. Though the shot could have been borrowed from any number of Ozu films, it’s also not the first time that Hou has begun a film with the image of a train. The move recalls an even deeper history as well, that of cinema’s first wondrous screening, which began in a café, with a similar train, and with that particularly auspicious name, Lumière.

The weight of such histories might have been unbearable for any director other than Hou, who is perhaps best known for his elliptical forays into historical subjects, as in City of Sadness (1989), Good Men, Good Women (1995), and Flowers of Shanghai (1998). Yet history is mostly absent from this film, or rather it’s pushed to the background in the weathered bookstores and cafés where Yoko (Yo Hitoto) and her friend Hajime (Tadanobu Asano), research the Taiwanese émigré composer Jiang Wenye, who won for Japan in an arts competition at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Yoko and Hajime seek the traces of an older Tokyo, one rapidly disappearing as maps are redrawn, new buildings constructed, and memories fade. Like the generational divides in Ozu, the old drifts away from the new, not out of scorn but neglect.

Hou traveled outside his native Taiwan to shoot Café Lumière, and as with 2007’s Flight of the Red Balloon, his journey abroad is spurred by a landmark film from the destination country. In this case, it’s Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), which follows an elderly couple around the city as they visit their adult children. And while it shares with its predecessor the same familial rifts and bonds, Café Lumière can be considered a Tokyo story in a far more literal sense. When Hou first conceived of the film, he traveled to Tokyo with a railroad map, plotting his characters’ routes according to station stops. Though the film is about Yoko, who’s returned to Japan after a trip to Taiwan (the reverse of Hou’s own path), her itinerant wandering seems to be a condition of her urban surroundings: she’s enfolded in the movement of the city, rushed along in its ceaseless flow. The nervy tautness of a film like Millennium Mambo (2001) is absent here—Café Lumière is softer, even hazy in the summer heat—but Tokyo is still imbued with its own restless drive. Mark Lee Ping-bin’s roving camerawork, a far cry from Ozu’s fixed views, captures the unexpected and voluptuous transformations of the city, and the film suggests that these shifting views are as much the experience of the outsider as they are intrinsic to the city itself.

In films like Tokyo Story, Ozu frequently used images of rushing trains as “pillow shots” to punctuate his domestic dramas. In contrast to the still and expressive scenes of the home, trains were symbols of a rapidly modernizing nation whose speed also threatened to leave the family behind. With Café Lumière, however, the trains are more than metaphor—they’re the film’s central conceit (the crew often referred to it as Métro Lumière, also the title of a documentary about the film). Hajime, for instance, rides the trains to record their sounds, his ear attuned to the rhythms of the subway cars and the voices of platform announcers. And all of the characters spend much of their time on trains, as if to suggest that being in the city means moving through it. While another film might cut directly from location to location, Café Lumière is more concerned with how people get to where they’re going, and what happens in such moments of transition. The space of the city, it contends, is not made up of the closed interiors of homes and buildings, but in the interstitial connections of the train, its fleeting encounters, and the possibilities that arise from the closeness of strangers.

In Tokyo, the Yamanote train circles the city, and though subways run throughout the area inside the ring, there is no clearly defined center. Where, then, is the heart of the city? Café Lumière was shot largely on the Yamanote line, an impressive feat given that no permits were ever issued. And in a way, the film is much like the Yamanote: rather than revealing a center, it evokes the space around it. In one of the film’s most touching scenes, Hajime, who has been caring for Yoko while she is ill, shows her a computer drawing he’s been working on. The image, which was created by Asano himself, is of a dense cluster of trains arranged loosely in a circle. He zooms in to show a baby in the middle, recognizable as Hajime by his recording equipment and the pocket watch Yoko gave to him in a previous scene, perhaps a reference to the pocket watch Noriko, the young widow of Tokyo Story, receives as a gift from her father-in-law. Yoko chides Hajime gently: “The eye seems kind of lonely.” He smiles ruefully, admitting that “yes, it’s close to tears.” If there is anyone who knows the heart of the city, it’s Hajime, but it’s a secret he’s unable to share.

There’s a scene in Tokyo Story where the grandparents, looking out over the vast expanse of the city, confess to each other the fear that once separated, they’ll never be able to find each other again. Fifty years later, in Hou’s Tokyo, people are already isolated, but unexpectedly find each other in rare moments of connection. In the film’s most remarkable scene, Yoko is on the subway, leaning against the door as another train passes by. Through the flickering rush of windows, Hajime appears on the other side, his arm raised and still, with a microphone perched in his hand. As his train slowly overtakes hers, he drifts by like a ghost. For a moment he almost seems to see her, though she’s completely unaware. The intricate choreography of this scene, which feels like a small miracle, is a testament to the painstaking precision of Hou’s mise-en-scène, which for this single, continuous shot took two weeks to complete.

But Café Lumière is full of such incidental intimacies. Aside from the principal actors, no extras were cast, so in many scenes the waiters, clerks, and passersby are simply playing themselves. The white dog in Hajime’s bookshop, for example, was already in the store when the crew arrived. Though he’s in the background, his quizzical looks and impatient pacing seem to express all that’s restrained between Hajime and Yoko as they listen to one of Jiang Wenye’s modernist piano recordings.

When speaking with Ichiro Yamamoto, one of the film’s producers, I learned that Hou only ever called cut at the end of a reel of film, or after eleven minutes’ worth of footage, where a lot could and did happen. There were never any rehearsals, no sets: just an openness to the outside world and the generous space given to the actors to move about and inhabit their roles. Instead of directing action, Hou seemed more content to observe, at least while shooting. If Café Lumière feels spontaneous, if it breathes, it’s also because Hou is a meticulous craftsman, having cut through 180,000 feet of footage to create such a slender and delicate film.

On the surface, it would appear that, as in an Ozu film, nothing much happens. For Ozu, though significant moments occur, they pass with little fanfare, practically without notice. With Hou, the drama has not only been diminished but pushed back to and sometimes beyond the edges of the frame. His low-angle interiors may resemble Ozu’s “tatami shots,” but rather than using a wide frame to show all, Hou more often obscures what’s happening. When Yoko reveals her pregnancy to her stepmother over a late-night snack, her voice is flat and her back is to the camera. She resists ready explanation, both to the viewer and her stepmother, whose weary exasperation turns into a kind of bewildered panic. Later, she tells her parents that she won’t marry her Taiwanese boyfriend because “he’s too close to his mother.” It’s funny and a little bit cruel, and the ambiguity of her message hangs uncomfortably over the entire scene. Yoko is at once intimate and distant: though she’s in nearly every scene, we rarely see her face in plain sight. And perhaps owing to Hou’s shooting style, there’s the sense that we’re always one step behind her as she gets lost in pedestrian traffic or disappears behind the wall of a railroad station.

Hou’s achievement here isn’t immediately apparent. His long, restless shots can seem haphazard and insignificant, as if lacking the narrative urgency that would otherwise rescue them from the cutting room floor for other filmmakers. But more than anyone else, Hou succeeds in suggesting a world just under the surface of what we see. His cinema doesn’t show and it doesn’t tell, and it’s easy to forget how hard this is to do when working with a medium as demonstrative and visually exposed as cinema. Hou’s approach is indirect, examining the details and margins of the characters, amplifying the small talk and things avoided. In the scenes with her family, for example, Yoko’s father (Nenji Kobayashi) is almost completely and painfully silent. Though his increasingly agitated wife urges him to “say something,” he stares into his sake glass, swirls it around, and takes small, measured sips. When he adds a potato to Yoko’s bowl over dinner, the small gesture speaks volumes about his desire to care for her, though he barely knows how it’s done.

Early in the film, Yoko is on the phone with Hajime, recounting a dream in which her child is stolen by a goblin and replaced with a baby made of ice. He later identifies the dream as the story from Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There and gives her the book, which she reads on the subway and takes back to her apartment. The tale is a kind of metaphor for Hou’s cinema, with transformations so subtle they often go unnoticed. And though Ida, the girl in the story, doesn’t immediately recognize that her infant sister is gone, her tenderness is real. It connects her to what’s been lost, and what’s yet to come. Over an image of the girl cradling the frozen bundle, Yoko softly reads to herself and perhaps to her unborn child: “How I love you.” When she arrives at the scene where Ida climbs outside her window to “outside over there,” she puts the book down, gets up, and stands at her own window. As she has done many other times in the film, she opens the window and looks out for a long time. What is Yoko’s “outside over there?” It is a threshold of seeing, both hers and ours, for what she observes is never revealed, and with her back to the camera, we can only imagine what she might be thinking. For Hou, “over there” may be Tokyo, but it’s also Yoko, a woman and a city, each bound up with the other, inscrutable and ever changing. At the Ozu Symposium in Tokyo, on December 12, 2003 (the birth and death date of Ozu), where Café Lumière was premiered, Hou cited in his address a quote by Hoffmannsthal from Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Millennium: “Depth is hidden. Where? On the surface.” And with Hou, where hardly anything is as it appears, the window view is the deepest of all.

Many thanks to Ichiro Yamamoto for his invaluable contribution to this piece.