Review: Cafe Lumiere (2003)

Slowed down pace + beautiful composition + contemporary slice of Japanese life = an appealing homage to director Yasujiro Ozu.

Let me say right of the bat, this calm, reflective film is not for everyone.

Yoko is a journalist researching the life of a famous pianist. She lives in a small Tokyo apartment, her best friend owns a bookshop, she frequents cafes and rides commuter trains, she visits her father and step-mother in their suburban home and later in the movie, they pay her a visit. Through the course of the film, we learn that Yoko is pregnant, but she doesn’t want to marry her boyfriend and plans to raise the child on her own.

That’s as much of a plot as you’re going to get in this slice-of-life film, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s homage to master Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu. Cafe Lumiere is about observation and quiet reflection. As we watch Yoko go about her day, the ordinariness of her life is absorbing. Part of the fascination is that she lives in an exotic city, where everyday routines are anything but routine for this American viewer. There’s also something pleasant about escaping into another person’s life so completely.

In the conventional sense of a story, nothing really happens but once the film ends, you realize you’ve experienced Yoko’s life as it is and probably has been for many years–and all of that is about to change. The pregnancy and struggle of single parenthood is where most would begin to tell Yoko’s story, but not here. This is the calm before the storm as it were, a period where Yoko reflects on her situation, quietly observing the world around her, as we the audience observe her.

I doubt my description of this film and the experience of watching it is doing Cafe Lumiere justice. Let me put it another way. Afterward, I felt as if I’d just taken a short vacation to Japan, visiting a good friend (the kind where you can be content with periods of silence as well as conversation.) Together, we just hung out and I experienced “real life” in another part of the world. [**** out of 5]

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