[Published in the Nashville Scene (whose arts editor Jim Ridley is a treasure!) on March 9, 2006 in conjunction with the wonderful Belcourt Theater's short-lived Nashville Premieres Festival. Read the original version here.]

Café Lumière (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2003)

When a new film by the great Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien appears on local movie screens, anyone truly interested in cinema as an art form likely has the date marked on their calendar. But the timing of the Nashville Premieres festival makes its screenings of Hou’s Café Lumière even more of a necessity. Where the film offered Hou the chance to pay his respects to Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu on the centenary of his birth, the Belcourt screenings offer filmgoers the chance to pay their respects to the film’s visionary distributor, Wellspring.

One of the most important and reliable American distributors of challenging films (e.g. Russian Ark, The Brown Bunny), Wellspring has just seen its theatrical division shuttered by its new owners, The Weinstein Company. Perhaps the most ominous sign yet for the future of foreign-film distribution in the States, the loss of Wellspring means that now we’re even less likely to have the opportunity to go to the theater to see the films that demand being seen there the most.

And Café Lumière, as would be expected for a film whose original Japanese title consists of the characters for the words “coffee,” “time” and “light,” is a film that needs to be seen as projected light rather than as dancing phosphors on a television screen. With understated formal mastery, Hou builds the quietest city symphony ever filmed around a minimal, Ozu-inspired story of a young woman trying to navigate relationships with her family, her suitors, her work and herself.

The film’s most dramatic scene—the unmarried protagonist Yoko tells her parents she’s pregnant—shares equal weight with the preceding scene, which exists mainly to convey the feeling of lying on the family-room floor in your parents’ house while your mom cooks dinner in the next room. Those able to enter into the film’s careful rhythms will find its weight and meaning exist not in any melodrama but in Hou’s sensitive attention to details—such as noticing the psychic difference between domestic interiors in the morning vs. the evening.

Hou, best known for his examinations of Taiwanese history, offers an outsider’s view of Tokyo. He strays far from the facile labyrinth of neon on view in Lost in Translation and finds himself making languorous visits to the bookstores, coffee shops and train routes of the older districts that haven’t changed much since Ozu’s era—all the better to subtly examine how life has (and hasn’t) changed in the intervening decades. In his recent films Millennium Mambo and Three Times, Hou strives to show the way we live today. With Café Lumière, he tries nothing so presumptuous. Instead, he shows us, with consummate modesty and a flaneur’s eye, the way we live.

© Nashville Scene. Reproduced by permission.

 Cafe Lumiere   (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2003)