Café Lumière is a film by Taiwanese-born Hou Hsiao-Hsien that was shot in 2003 and meant as a homage to Yasujiro Ozo. For some reason, I had quite high expectations about this films. First of all, I was intrigued by the title. I automatically connected it with a collection of photos by Anders Petersen, called Café Lehmitz. I found out about this wonderful Swedish photographer by chance: one photo taken from the Café Lehmitz collection is the cover image of the album Rain Dogs, by Tom Waits. The photo shows a man and a woman hugging, they could be friends, mother and son, lovers, brother and sister.... it's an extremely powerful picture, full of life. So, Rain Dogs was the way I found out about the wholeCafé Lehmitz collection. In 1967, Anders Petersen started to photograph the regular late-night clients of a café (named Lehmitz, of course) in Hamburg, and went on for over 3 years. It was mainly prostitutes, drug-addicts, drunks, lovers. A blend of humanity and lives that became a book about 10 years later.
"The people at the Café Lehmitz had a presence and a sincerity that I myself lacked. It was okay to be desperate, to be tender, to sit all alone or share the company of others. There was a great warmth and tolerance in this destitute setting." He wrote.
When I found out about all this I was a student, working in a hotel at weekends and in a café 3 nights a week. Of course, I felt I could really understand what Petersen meant, because I always saw the same people in the café where I worked, basically a sex-obsessed piano player and his entourage, an English young man playing Stairway to Heaven on a guitar and keeping me company as I cleaned the bar, and some other people I have now almost forgotten. His photo collection became intimately connected to my experience, and to my idea of "café".
Going back to our issue, the title Café Lumière brought that very special atmosphere back to life, like eating a madeleine. Plus, one of my favourite actors (Tadanobu Asano in the role of Hajime) is in the cast, and the plot is actually intriguing, even if it's not a "plot" in the proper sense of the word.
Yoko,a Japanese researcher who has spent some time in Taiwan returns home to tell her family and male friend that she is pregnant with her Taiwanese boyfriend, but that she doesn't want to marry him. Hajime also helps in her research about a composer, as he works in a second-hand bookshop and seems very devoted to his job; he has the singular hobby of recording the sounds of trains in different parts of Tokyo. So far, so good. What I found difficult to accept was the almost total suppression of emotion(s) from the film. No one reacts to the news that Yoko is pregnant. Actually, Hajime makes a computer desktop with the picture of a foetus in a womb of trains. He also searches for and finds a children's picture book telling a story that perfectly corresponds to a dream Yoko had told him about. So we understand that he cares for her (he makes food for her when she's down with flu), that he even likes her. Yet everything feels so dry, so polished.
I can't say I didn't like it. On the contrary, the slow, meditative scenes are beautiful, poetic, never dull. The film is basically a long walk through the streets of contemporary Tokyo with Yoko and Hajime, and through the minutiae of every-day life: hanging clothes, making and eating food, getting the flu, being on a train, spend time working and doing small things we like. It is all beautiful, the absence of emotion makes everything serenely dry, somehow unreal, somehow sad, because there aren't any true human connections. This is what left me slightly dissatisfied....
Café Lumière was awarded the Golden Tulip at 2005 Istanbul International Film Festival, the award as "Newcomer of the year" by the Japanese Academy in the same year, and was nominated for the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival in 2004.