Hou Hsiao-Hsien bills his latest work an homage to the great Yasujiro Ozu, whose stylistic simplicity has long guided Hou. In “Cafe Lumiere,” Hou uses Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” as a quarry to construct an emotional landscape of isolated individuals silently struggling for connections. As always with the director, drama is understated (some may say nonexistent), images are meticulously assembled, and issues of alienation and pervasive loneliness infuse a story whose outward sequence of events can be told in a few sentences. Hou fans will find what they’re looking for; others will wonder when the action starts.
Yoko (pop star Yo Hitoto, in her feature debut) is researching the life of mid-20th century composer Jiang Wen-Ye, whose beautiful work is used on the soundtrack. She lives in a typically small Tokyo apartment, often hanging out with bookseller Hajime (Tadanobu Asano, seemingly the busiest actor in Japan).
On a visit to her father (Nenji Kobayashi) and step-mother (Kimiko Yo), she casually announces that she’s pregnant, but she has no interest in marrying the Taiwanese father. Yoko’s revelation is greeted without hysterics, or even much of a discussion, although her parents’ concern is reflected in a subsequent private conversation.
She informs Hajime in a similarly matter-of-fact way, while walking along a busy street: At the crucial moment, Hou has Hajime walk behind a pole, thus depriving the audience of his immediate reaction.
Hou’s take on Tokyo is much the same as his view of Taipei: Both are sprawling, anonymous cities with little to define them as homes. Yoko and Hajime search for a cafe frequented by her research subject, but the city has changed so much in 70 years since he went there that she has difficulty locating the neighborhood.
In a further metaphor for the isolation of contemporary urban life, Hou frequently shows Yoko and Hajime on commuter trains — he’s a trainspotter, spending hours on the subways recording sounds. The train scenes reinforce the idea of city dwellers passing through their environment without actually interacting with it, and as such are a perfect symbol of the rootlessness at the heart of Hou’s modern society.
While influenced by Ozu, Hou makes clear he’s not beholden to him, although he does quote from the master: the first glimpse of Yoko’s parents’ home is shot from a low angle, anda scene in which Yoko borrows sake and a glass from a neighbor is directly taken from “Tokyo Story.” Both directors share a vision of a changing world leaving a costly human toll as it thrusts forward.
Lensing, by the masterful Lee Ping-Bing, is rigorously controlled, with minimalist movements that focus only on what’s essential. The cool, objective camera makes it plain we’re unrecognized observers.