Cafe Lumiere (Kohi jiko) [2003] • Japan, Taiwan

You have to like trains, find them romantic or aesthetically pleasing in order to enjoy this movie to the fullest: there's a train going by; there she is walking to the train; there she is getting on the train; there she is on the train; there she is getting off the train; there she is walking away from the train ... cut. Rinse and repeat.

Having said that, she, Yo Hitoto, a Japanese singer making her film debut here, is fabulous. I enjoyed her 'hmm', 'hai', 'mmm', 'grunt' style acting. I've never heard acting like it before. She gives a very natural and genuine performance. She's great. Her mom and dad are great. Tadanobu Asano is here. He's a good enough actor that you can sense his muted desire in subtle ways. Almost every minute of people interaction in this film, even in silence, is superb. But the film is padded with a lot of train rides and walking.

I assume we are to live with Hitoto's internals while she is traveling around doing nothing. The problem (or contradiction) with that approach is that we are presented with a character who appears not to have much going on inside, problem-wise. She is overtly presented as someone rather carefree. The spectacular scene where her parents come to visit and she speaks her mind about the man who made her pregnant gave me no sense that it was troubling to her. This seems at odds with the desire of the film. Or else it's genius. I was touched by (what turned out to be) the end of the film, until it turned out to be the end of the film. Hitoto's reaction both times to waking up to Asano's character, the first time when she has the flu and the second time at the end of the film, were lovely as could be. I give Hou high marks for reiterating the theme and for making it obvious the first time and subtle the second but sadly, final time. Waking up to the little joys in life, done without fanfare.

I understand what Hou is trying to do. I really think I get his thing. Well ... a couple things. One is the pace, creating a tempo, a rhythm. The other is creating a scenario with compelling characters that is deep enough to be immersive but not thick enough to proceed and resolve in traditionally expected ways. Basically, we should be left wanting more. We're given the gift of letting our imaginations fill in the blanks. That's a good thing. I just think Hou filled Cafe Lumiere with a little too much un-engaging material, although the Taiwanese director did highlight, very well, many of the family and generational issues that show up as the theme in many of the best Japanese films. The nonchalance of the daughter towards her pregnancy is not an approach her parents share. Nor is her un-romantic, pragmatic view of the man who made her pregnant.

I am suspicious of (these whatever generation) film makers who employ the nothingness technique in the name of realism. I think some of them are jerks who just want to be challenging, some of them are inept and don't realize they aren't succeeding in making something good, and some of them do things that appeal to others but not to me.

I'm not against the technique. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. And sometimes trains, or at least train tracks, are used very effectively.

Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Starring: Yo Hitoto, Tadanobu Asano
IMDb 6.9 (1,171 votes)


  1. Only 3 stars? okay now that is insulting :/

  2. I have watched this twice since I posted this review. That should say something about it. Maybe it was just to listen to Hitoto Yo. ;) I love her performance.

    I think one really needs to be predisposed to this kind of film for it to work. I wasn't in that frame of the first time, I guess. But since you've called attention to it, I will upgrade the number of stars to four. (not ready to call it five yet ... maybe one more viewing and I will)

  3. Thanks! That's much better. I have to be honest, when I first saw this movie I was like "hm pretty good". But I just couldn't stop thinking about it. I rewatched and rewatched and now I realize how good of a movie this is. 5 stars in my book ^^

  4. There is a difficult-to-articulate quality to some films that, even if you don't like them on first viewing, won't leave you alone and prompt another viewing. This is one of those films, I think. It grows on you.