Dedicated to Yasujiro Ozu, Café Lumiére is, in some ways, Hou Hsiao-hsien's melancholy rumination on the traditional Japanese family that was already in decline a half-century ago, when Ozu made his most celebrated domestic dramas. But for all Hou's supposed stylistic and temperamental affinities to Ozu, as well as a few affectionate quotes from Tokyo Story, Café Lumiére is hardly a pastiche.
If anything, Café Lumiére suggests an Ozu film in reverse—it's mainly ambience, "pillow shots," with bits of narrative serving as punctuation. Back in Tokyo after a stay in Taiwan, Yoko (Hitoto Yo) is subdued and opaque as she reoccupies her microscopic apartment and re-establishes contact with her equally undemonstrative family and friends. No one is particularly voluble; feelings are largely unexpressed, the better to surface in Yoko's dreams. These, it turns out, are largely mediated by Maurice Sendak's Outside Over There—the tale of a girl who rescues her baby sister from goblins—which Yoko realizes she read as a child.
Slow and quiet, the movie is essentially plotless, with meals and other activities unfolding in real time. Yoko wanders the city on some mysterious project—taking photos, asking questions, and looking for vanished landmarks. (Ultimately, we learn she's researching the life of Japan-schooled, early-20th-century Chinese composer Jiang Wenye, whose modernist music underscores the action.) Meanwhile, her old friend Hajime (Tadanobu Asano) is silently in love with Yoko; he's busy gathering sounds and images for a computer-based artwork. And you could easily miss the single sentence when Yoko informs her stepmother that she's pregnant.
Most of the story tumbles out in the movie's final minutes. Yet even this small eruption of melodrama is quickly subsumed in Hou's fascination with the metropolis. Yoko is last seen, as spotted by Hajime, sleeping on the train. She is dreaming perhaps that other story, whose secret connections seem to course beneath the reflected city of waking consciousness. (NR)