|A FilmExposed Film Review
Kôhî Joikôu (Café Lumière) (U)
Dir: Hsiao-hsien Hou, Japan, 2004, 107 mins, Japanese with subtitles
Cast: Yo Hitoto, Tadanobou Asano, Nenji Kobayashi, Kimiko Yo
Taiwanese director Hsiao-hsien Hou has self-consciously subtitled his new picture Kôhî Joikôu ‘a tribute to (revered Japanese director) Yasujiro Ozu’. But European audiences may have another word for it: Rohmer-esque. While it shares Ozu’s family themes and underplayed characters, it is primarily a gently told tale with a romantic theme and largely improvised dialogue.
Yoko, played by Japanese pop star Hitoto in her first film role, is a writer in Japan with a Taiwanese boyfriend. When she returns from visiting him and announces she is having a baby, her family are shocked - both by the pregnancy and by her point blank refusal of the father's offer of marriage. Confused and isolated, she seeks solace by spending time with her best friend - quiet, unassuming bookshop owner Hajime (Hagiwara, whom audiences may recognise from his recent role in Zatôichi).
The relationship between Yoko and Hajime is charmingly played by the leads - both of them convincing and unshowy enough to make the drama seem like documentary. There is a sweet tenderness and intimacy here, and they are as natural on camera as the pet cats and dogs that feature in the background of many of their scenes. A simple exchange over Hajime’s laptop amiably demonstrates their mutual affection while leaving everything limpidly unsaid.
But as this is Japan, pretty much all of the emotions in play remain buried beneath a thick social veneer. Everyone in the film is very, very reserved, even in the face of emotional turmoil. When Yoko’s father flies off the handle at his daughter’s reckless behaviour, all he can do to show it is to drink sake from a slightly too big glass, and look out of the window a lot.
In fact Hou makes a theme in Kôhî Joikôu of letting the important action occur off screen. The characters frequently wander off camera, and when Yoko tells Hajime she is pregnant, she does it when they are both hidden from the audience by a telegraph pole. With these visual gags, Hou proves at least that he shares with Ozu the skill to hint at his characters’ rich inner lives.
It's true that not a lot happens in this film. Indeed, some in the audience will sympathise when towards the end of the picture Yoko nods off in a train carriage, as they may have been fighting the urge to do so themselves for most of the film’s duration. But there is more to this ‘tribute’ than just a young director riding on the coat tails of a master. Those who are able to key into Kôhî Joikôu’s gentle pace and slight story will be rewarded with a simple tale of intense humanity.