The title of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s latest film is a reference to cinematic pioneers the Lumiere brothers. Café Lumiere‘s repeated train imagery refers to their seminal footage of a train entering a station, L’Arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat (1895). Though that 50-second film showed only a train and travelers alighting from it, its implications were enormous. Along with the Lumieres’ other recordings of daily life, it unlocked the potential of Edison’s early camera, the kinetoscope, lifting it from invention to art.
Hou employs similarly dynamic camerawork in Café Lumiere, recreating Japan’s lush colors and busy depths, but doesn’t imbue them with any universal meaning. It’s a departure from his stylized recent films, such as the fantastic Millennium Mambo, but captures a fragile world on the cusp of growing much more complicated. Hajime (Tadanobu Asano) records train sounds when not working in a bookstore, where he assists his friend Yoko (Yo Hitoto) with an article she is writing. The care Hajime shows for his subject reflects Hou’s focus on capturing a contemporary life. Hajime shows Yoko a Photoshop image of himself as a fetus surrounded by a complex pattern of trains. It’s almost as if Hou is projecting himself through Hajime, into a world he can record but can’t control. The fetus among trains approximates the “individual” cast among the cascade of history. In the age of camera phones and reality TV, it’s a refreshing reminder of the consequences of incessant recordings.
Café Lumiere (kôhî Jikô)
Yo Hitoto, Tadanobu Asano
US theatrical: 10 Jun 2005 (Limited release)
Café Lumiere seems almost a statement of purpose for cinema: to capture the reality of a moment without losing sight of the permanence imbued by the act of recording. Single and pregnant, Yoko visits her parents in the countryside and invites them to her apartment in the city, where their generation gap indicates and evolving Japan, perfectly exemplified when Yoko’s mother sheds her dignity to borrow sake glasses from a neighbor while Yoko, an independent woman, looks on nonchalantly.
Yoko is haunted in her dreams by visions from a Maurice Sendak story about children whose faces wither and then turn to ice. Though strong, she is clearly worried about her pregnancy, not to mention her own mortality. Death inhabits every frame of the movie like half a shadow. It lurks in Yoko’s determination to recreate the life of a dead Taiwanese musician in her article, in the lengthy silences, and the long takes of timepieces and meals—all underscored by Hou’s unflinching determination to preserve these moments.
Café Lumiere was commissioned to mark the 100th birthday of pioneering director Yasujiro Ozu, whose career stretched from 1929 through 1962, and whose films (including Tokyo Story  and Floating Weeds ) famously developed formal conventions initiated by the Lumieres. Café Lumiere‘s historical context is thus much like that of Hajime’s self-portrait: it’s a movie now part of a growing collection of world cinema. Like Ozu, and like the Lumieres, Hou is concerned with preserving his present for future generations. Café Lumiere locates the ephemeral individual in history, however commonplace it may seem to us now.