The suggestion that there are some filmmakers we have to work to appreciate often implies that moviegoers should be prepared to suffer for the sake of art. We accept that there are writers who require perseverance, perhaps because we associate reading with learning, but we want to pretend that movies, which we grow up watching, require no special understanding. What do you do, then, when you encounter a movie that doesn’t work in the same way as the ones you’re used to, either because of cultural differences or because the filmmaker has a distinctive, unfamiliar style? Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou, for example, comes out of the director’s love for American film noir, but having seen Out of the Past or The Big Heat won’t prepare you for it.
The Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien, whose 2004 film Café Lumière was recently released by Fox Lorber on DVD, isn’t easy. I walked out the first time I saw one of his movies; it seemed aimless to the point of insanity. The constant placement of the camera in the middle ground—Mr. Hou’s refusal to use close-ups or to cut to different shots within a scene—made me feel less that I was watching a movie than conducting surveillance. The case for Mr. Hou isn’t helped by those of his devotees who review his films as if they were talking to each other and attribute the audience’s feelings of restlessness to nothing more than Western cloddishness.
In fact, there’s probably no director working today who is as acclaimed and has less popular recognition than Mr. Hou. His name is spoken of reverently in film circles (perhaps too reverently for his own good) and draws blank looks even from moviegoers who frequent art houses. This is because of the generally disgraceful state of foreign-film distribution here, with movies given cursory releases when they are released at all. Mr. Hou’s 2001 Millennium Mambo opened here in 2003, in the death slot of Christmas week at Cinema Village. Mr. Hou’s latest, the exquisite Three Times, easily the best film at the 2005 New York Film Festival, has yet to acquire an American distributor.
More than any current worthwhile filmmaker, Mr. Hou requires patience. You can, after seeing one of his movies, decide he isn’t for you. But if you make that decision midway through one of his pictures, as I did, you’ve dismissed him before giving his method a chance to work. Mr. Hou makes slow movies, and his spare technique—a camera that rarely moves, taking in scenes from that middle distance, nearly every one rendered in an unbroken master shot—can lead you to mistakenly assume his work is undifferentiated. But the emotional impact of Mr. Hou’s movies comes from the accumulation of seemingly inconsequential moments. The director’s design reveals itself slowly, and when you enter into the flow of his films, rather than trying to ferret out the significance of each moment piecemeal (less a way of watching movies than of taking inventory), you discover that his subtleties make many other filmmakers obvious by comparison.
Few recent movies offer the sense of being deeply engaged with the world, or the quiet, enveloping elation, that Mr. Hou’s Café Lumière does. Perhaps it’s the season, but the film brings to mind the moment near the end of A Christmas Carol where the saved Scrooge takes a walk through London and finds “that everything could yield him pleasure.”
Café Lumière is set in the quietest Tokyo imaginable, a sister city that might have grown up unnoticed by the metropolis with which it shares its name. The movie takes place in residential backstreets and small cafés, in bookstores and in a cramped apartment that nonetheless offers its young heroine the comfort of a home she has made for herself. She’s Yoko (Yo Hitoto), a young writer researching the life of a Taiwanese composer, and she has discovered that she’s pregnant by a boyfriend she has no intention of marrying (underscoring his insignificance, we never see him). She doesn’t have nearly enough money for a child, and she hasn’t yet outgrown the pleasure, like a college kid home on break, of allowing herself to be fussed over by her stepmother and father. Yet she’s not flighty or irresponsible.
As we watch Yoko working in her favorite café, visiting her friend Hajime (the charming Tadanobu Asano) in his bookstore and pretending that he’s not in love with her, eating the stew that her stepmother has prepared for her because it’s her favorite, checking in at the local train station on a trip home to see the now-aged cat she used to say hello to every day on her way to school, a feeling of deep contentment comes over us. Yoko’s future is uncertain, and her parents fret about her ability to raise a child. But she has learned how to live in the present. Watching the movie, we do too. Working in a far more subdued palette, cinematographer Mark Ping-bin Lee gets a kind of becalmed, unobtrusive beauty that, in its mood of contented domestication, may make you think of Bonnard.
Here’s a perfect example of how Mr. Hou works: Yoko and her dad are having a snack, and he places a few chunks of potato from his portion on her plate because he knows she particularly likes them. That simple detail conveys the consideration and generosity he feels toward his daughter more than any declaration of love would. (It reminded me of how, when my mother makes a roast, my father always puts a piece of the rough, crispy outside on my plate.)
The extended length of Mr. Hou’s scenes works beautifully in Café Lumière because the film is about savoring each moment. One critic has suggested that the pace of Mr. Hou’s contemporary-set films are a deliberate resistance to the ever-accelerated pace of modern life, particularly urban life. It’s as if the entire world has become as restless as the small grandsons in the great Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 masterpiece, Tokyo Story.
Café Lumière was conceived as a tribute to Ozu, and it contains several direct quotes from Tokyo Story. Mr. Hou’s is a more optimistic film, one in which people treat each other decently and in which peace is possible in urban life. Yoko and Hajime aren’t buffeted by the city, as the young Taipei club kids in Millennium Mambo are; they’re cradled by it—literally, in the computer graphic Hajime creates showing himself in the center of what he describes as a womb of trains. Hajime likes to ride the city trains, recording the sounds of the station, the arriving and departing trains, the announcements over the P.A. (one begins with the opening notes of Rain and Tears, the 1968 Aphrodite’s Child hit, which is used memorably in Three Times)—as if these randomly snatched sounds will reveal the secret music of the city, of modern life itself. In the final shot, trains are caterpillaring over various tracks; the womb that Hajime imagined has come to life. By then, even though Hajime’s still searching for their music, Mr. Hou has heard it, and allows us to move to its deep, graceful rhythms.