My latest Humanists column, on Hsiao-hsien Hou’s Ozu homage Café Lumière, went up today on 3QuarksDaily:
Legend has it that Ozu shot his "home dramas" (including but most certainly not limited to Late Spring, Tokyo Story, and, previously written up in this column, Equinox Flower) with the camera mounted at the height of someone seated on a tatami mat. It always seemed a little higher than that to me, but the humility of the aesthetic choice still came across. It suited the humility of the circumstances; the homes in which his dramas played out always housed the stripe of family that, while appearing outwardly "middle class" to modern audiences, clearly sufferent from the kind of poverty — perhaps "lack" gets closer — that touched everyone in a Japan still so fresh from the Second World War.
Hou's characters live in the Japan of today, more or less, and hence don't writhe in the bondage of family ties with quite the same resigned anguish. Yoko, a young writer researching the life and work of Taiwanese composer Jiang Wen-ye, freely hops between her homeland and his. Hajime, a bookseller and artist who spends his free time recording the sounds of the railway onto Minidiscs, doesn't seem to have any family at all. Yoko, taking a stretch away from her boyfriend in Taiwan, returns to Tokyo to break to her parents the news of her pregnancy. They take it better than they take the news that Yoko has no desire whatsoever to marry the father — the non-Japanese father, mind you! — whom she considers a layabout.
In an actual Ozu picture, this would have turned into a matter of life and death, or at least the family would have treated it like one. Hou makes confusion the presiding emotion: it turns Yoko slightly wayward, it oscillates her mother between acting composed and comically flustered, and it drives her father to stare wordlessly out windows for nearly all his screen time. Too occupied with learning more about Wenye and his music to let the trouble at home affect her dramatically, Yoko tries to retrace the composer's long-ago travels in Tokyo while he falls nearer and nearer into Hajime's orbit — an orbit he inevitably makes, I suppose, what with all those train rides.
Read the whole thing here. HHH (as Olivier Assayas calls him — is his documentary on the man any good?) gives me many, many reasons to believe that the center of cinematic vitality may have moved to Asia semi-permanently. Consider also Hou’s countrymen
- Kar-wai Wong, even if he’s momentarily lost his touch
- Ming-liang Tsai, a Malaysian-born Chinese, but still (What Time is it There? in The Humanists)
- Edward Yang, all of whose movies but Yi Yi I find strangely hard to come by
and Taiwan alone makes U.S. and Western European film look hopelessly pallid. The trio including Korea (Sangsoo Hong’s Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors in The Humanists) and Thailand (Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century in The Humanists) seems unstoppable.