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Review: Café Lumière

Tonight, Metrograph continued its Hou Hsiao-hsien retrospective with a screening of Café Lumière, a film commissioned to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Yasujiro Ozu’s birth—and like the vast majority of the esteemed director’s work, this tribute is a subtle, understated, and keenly-observed domestic drama.

The protagonist is a young writer and audiophile that returns to Japan from abroad bearing shocking news: she’s pregnant, and adamantly refuses to marry the Taiwanese father. Her blunt attitude toward the situation and stubborn insistence on raising the child alone throws her rather traditional family into disarray. Her mother (revealed to actually be her stepmother in a typically offhanded manner) often lingers in the background, but is far from subservient; her cooking, cleaning, and other chores set the rhythm of the household—any home she enters becomes her space, and she’s not shy about expressing her opinion that her daughter lacks both the maturity and financial stability to properly care for a baby. Her father, meanwhile, usually sits quietly at the dinner table, nursing a beer and watching television—a stern but passive figure, too timid and ineffectual to acknowledge his daughter’s decision, either positively or negatively.

The style, too, is evocative of Ozu. Many scenes unfold from a single camera angle, lending the rambling, circuitous dialogue a casual, naturalistic quality (in fact, at several points, our heroine exits the frame altogether, leaving the screen completely empty while she speaks to somebody just out of view). Much of the conflict, though, lies in the ellipses: as characters slurp noodles, fold laundry, and listen to music, their silence articulates their turbulent emotions more clearly than mere words ever could.

The result is a story that’s more concerned with subtext than plot, composed almost entirely of the “boring bits” most other movies would omit. It doesn’t even end so much as stop—nearly all of the major narrative threads remain unresolved. Oddly enough, however, this absence of closure only adds to Café Lumière’s authenticity: sometimes, there are no easy answers; sometimes, we lose track of old friends, and can only speculate about how their lives may have turned out—always wondering, but never truly knowing.

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