Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Café Lumière

As a tribute to Yasujirō Ozu, Café Lumière is a fitting update and homage to the career of the Japanese director. The themes often central in Ozu’s films, modernity and generational difference, reveal Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s film to be a modern day continuation of those still significant issues. The presence of trains, as in Ozu’s work, are utilized as a symbol of modernity and technology even more prevalent in contemporary society.

Technological progression and modernity have a strong visual presence in the film's diegesis through the repeated element of trains. Similar to Ozu’s films, trains represent the ability to reduce distance between characters in Café Lumière. As society progresses technology is intended as a means to simplify and ease life’s difficulties. Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) reveals that technology, rather than relieve the struggles of distance as families move away from each other, often creates the opposite effect. Train travel in post-war Japan allowed people to connect with each other throughout the country as the rapidly advancing society drew them apart. While trains allowed the family in Tokyo Story to visit each other even as they were spread about Japan, the relative ease of maintaining a physical connection could not bridge the generational gap created by the progressing society. The train was to reduce the time and effort needed to cross great distances, to keep people close figuratively, even when they were in distant locales. The relationship between parents and children in Tokyo Story provides a prime example as the children disregard their parents even after they’ve crossed a great distance to be with them.

The inability of trains to connect people emotionally even as it easily brings them together physically is again exposed in Café Lumière. Early in the film Yoko buys Hajime a conductor’s watch she purchased at a celebration of the railroad’s 116th anniversary. Rail travel in Japan has had many years to advance, forty-one since Ozu’s last film, and it is evident through the prevalence of trains in Café Lumière. Where train travel was once a long, arduous journey in Tokyo Story, it is now an effortless and dominating aspect of everyday life. Yoko travels by train throughout Café Lumière, most notably to her parent’s home. The all-encompassing existence of rail travel in the film is revealed as Yoko traverses the city in her daily life and the country as she visits her parents. Technology has taken over daily existence as large portions of everyday are spent on trains. Despite the relative ease of train travel; Yoko and her parents, while able to visit regularly still have a distant relationship. Technology has allowed them to be physically together yet they know and speak little about their lives. After announcing her pregnancy, Yoko’s parents are unaware their daughter had a boyfriend. Parental concern is voiced between the parents but not discussed with Yoko, particularly her father who never speaks of the pregnancy. Yoko’s plans to raise the child alone emphasize the generational divide as the older generation would not have had a child out of wedlock, especially when a suitable father is available. Advancing technology should make life easier, allowing for more personal time and connection but the generational divide seen in Ozu’s films is only expanding further as time progresses.

While trains emphasize the emotional distance between Yoko and her parents it also provides a connection with Hajime. As the audience is introduced to Hajime, Yoko gives him the conductor’s watch. Hajime and Yoko’s relationship is established upon their first shared scene as the closest one in the film. Hajime’s train recordings are also a topic of conversation between them. One of the most intimate moments of the film is a scene where Hajime shows Yoko a collage of trains forming a womb around himself as a fetus. The film ends as Yoko and Hajime meet on a train as he is recording audio. While technology, in the form of trains, can contribute to the alienation among Yoko and her parents it provides a connection between her and Hajime. Perhaps since they have shared formative experiences they are better able to connect in the midst of the ever-expanding world of technology. Maybe it provides them a common understanding that older generations aren’t completely familiar or comfortable with.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien has made with Café Lumière, an Ozu tribute that reveals the continuation of technology’s impact on daily life. The divide among the generations in Ozu’s films is shown to have continued throughout the last forty years. The progress of train technology, rather than providing more free time to enjoy life and family has not necessarily accomplished that feat. Café Lumière illuminates the complexities that arise as technology advances and the effect it imposes on daily life and relationships.

--Chris McChane

(Café Lumière 咖啡時光, dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien 侯孝賢, 2003)


Robane said...

good points. I like the mediforical womb surounded with trains. It reminded me of the comples nature of film, in that the womb is a nurturing place for baby to start to grow and develop but at the same time it is surounded by the mechanical cold hard steel really puts a medifore into the meaning of birth in a way.R

Anonymous said...

A beautiful analysis of the image of the trains! How do you view the presence of technology in other films we've watched, such as "In the Mood for Love" (radio, newsreels, films, rice cookers, etc.), "Once Upon a Time in China" (guns, cameras), and "Song of the Exile" (newsreels, trains, TV)? --Jennifer

Gillian Adler said...

It seems that you are trying to say that technology, such as trains are used as neutral figures coexisting and changing the way we interact. I have never seen an Ozu film, but I have seen many film's influenced by Ozu and your analysis frames his films very well.

Anonymous said...

Excellent interpretation of the film. The train in this film does play an important role in connecting Yoko and Hajime. I like the fact that you point out technology can bring people together physically but not emotionally.


Anonymous said...

A superb reading of the role of technology, specifically "trainsportation," in Cafe Lumiere. Thinking back on the film I begin to think of the contrast between movement by train and by foot. The train helps to close the long distance between family and friends, but as Chris points out it does not help close the emotional distance that can develop during sustained separation. The relationship between Hajime and Yoko does seem to evolve throughout the film. I feel that the relationship is best portrayed during their shared walking experience while looking for the cafe. Within the techno-womb of the city, they are still humans being, being together; I am in support of Chris' reading that Hajime and Yoko have a shared understanding of the technological world, hence they need not negotiate their relationship with it, rather they can within it.


Jon said...

"For every invention how much time have we saved.
We're not much further than we were in the Cave." -Modest Mouse
The film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I also watched for a class this semester, also spoke to the danger of technology and how it makes us less human. In both that and this film, the Machines are the ones shown dancing, singing, and even (if you look hard enough) making love.