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Café Lumière

Shigehiko Hasumi

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I hardly need to point out how often Hou Hsiao-hsien has pointed his camera at railways, from Green, Green Grass of Home (1983), which begins with the arrival of a train and ends with a trainís departure, to Café Lumière (KŰhÓ jikŰ, 2003), which concludes with the image of train after train crossing over steel bridges. The motion of the passing trains is taken from many angles Ė sometimes the camera is inside the train, sometimes it is next to the tracks, sometimes it is on the platform Ė and each image imparts a distinct rhythm to that particular film.

But, as in the introduction to Dust in the Wind (1986) or the scene in A Summer at Grandpaís (1984) of the train carrying a brother and sister to the village where their grandfather lives, Hou does more than just insert the images of moving vehicles into his films. He also directs his lens at a wide range of railway-related scenes, including the platforms and ticket gates at the railway stations that are the scenes for meetings and partings, the distinctive round clocks of the stations, the operation of signals as trains approach, the rising and falling of crossing gates and, in the short The Sandwich Man (1983), the carefree play of children in a railway switchyard.

But these scenes do not indicate a special personal attachment on Houís part to railways. In fact, he once told an interviewer that he often got motion-sick when travelling by train as a child, suggesting that the vibration of trains holds unpleasant associations for him. But, because of his commitment to spatial composition, he nevertheless includes trains in many of his works, and he realises his directorial intentions by bringing motion into the image rather than moving the camera itself around unnecessarily.

Houís films also include trains on which none of the characters are riding. By rushing past the filmís characters, those trains heighten the dramatic situation. Recall, for instance, the splendid scene in A Time to Live and A Time to Die (1985) involving the boy protagonist and his grandmother at the sweets stand next to the train crossing. Or the scene of the deserted seaside platform in A City of Sadness (1989), a sublimely heartrending depiction of the sense of powerlessness of characters before a passing train.

The three gangsters in Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996), as they embark on their journey south, use one means of transportation after another. After taking trains, they ride motorbikes along unpaved roads that wind beneath leafy green trees, and their riding is captured with a long moving shot that creates a splendid sense of motion. But the situation suddenly becomes more serious when they switch to a car. One is thus reminded of the weak presence of automobiles in Houís films. When his camera is pointed at moving cars, they bring none of the vigour to the screen that is provided by trains; in most cases, they are negative elements that contribute nothing to the development of the story. While cars appear frequently in his first three films (Cute Girl [1980], Cheerful Wind [1981] and Green, Green Grass of Home), they become less prominent beginning with The Boys from Fengkuei (1983), which was the first film to reveal his formalist intentions, and none appear at all until Daughter of the Nile (1987), his first film set in contemporary Taipei. Then he continued to avoid cars for nearly another decade, until Goodbye South, Goodbye.

This absence of automobiles raises intriguing questions. Perhaps the confined space inside cars is inappropriate for the distant shots that form the basis for his compositional design. Another possible reason is that few of his stories are set in contemporary cities. His autobiographical films set in rural Taiwan and his films about the history of modern Taiwan do frequently show rickshaws, which are more suitable vehicles for the elderly than cars; and for his younger characters from the country struggling to live in the city, the only available means of transportation is the motorbike. Letís recall who has driven the cars in Houís films to date. In his first three works the drivers are all young women, while in Daughter of the Nile and his later films about life in the big city, the drivers are rough-natured men. In each case, the roles performed by the cars are negative, neither celebrating the love between a man and a woman nor offering physical protection from attack. The final image in Goodbye South, Goodbye Ė a long shot of the car stuck in a green field Ė is a vivid visualisation of the thematic negativity that automobiles possess for Hou.

How does Café Lumière depict the railway networks that criss-cross Japanís capital city? The Tokyo of this film, Houís first foreign work, includes none of the bustle of government and business in the downtown areas, none of the cityís skyscrapers, and none of the neon signs of the entertainment districts. Houís view of the city is characterised, rather, by the fact that his camera ignores completely the expressways that have been the image of cities of the future ever since Andrei Tarkovskyís Solaris (1972). Whenever he can, he avoids putting his young characters in automobiles, filling the screen instead with the motion of trains, something he refrained from showing in films after his earlier autobiographical works.

With the background of trains crossing each other on multiple lines, he introduces a taciturn couple who recognise the value of each otherís presence. Here taciturnity suggests a love that needs no sexual language. While the man and woman are older than the middle-school students in Dust in the Wind, they speak just as little to each other. This taciturnity is connected to the unusual hobby of the young used-bookseller (Tadanobu Asano) who supports the heroine (Yo Hitoto) in various ways Ė he likes to go around recording on-site the sounds of moving trains.

Just as the deaf-mute photographer in A City of Sadness does not talk with his wife, this young bookseller never converses with the woman as long as they are on a train, for he is always wearing earphones and holding a recorder in his hand. The heroine is pregnant with another manís child and intends to give birth to the baby even if that means becoming an unmarried mother. She feels calm just to ride trains next to the bookseller without speaking as he records the train sounds. She stands on platforms with him, sometimes passes him by, sometimes watches trains together with him, and sometimes lets herself fall asleep to the uneven rocking of the trains. The relationship between this man and woman clearly repeats the one in Millennium Mambo (2001), but fortunately there are train tracks running all around the woman and trains appear wherever the camera points, so she never has to get into a car with him.

Here we must not overlook the fact that none of the trains crossing the screen in Café Lumière resembles the trains of the Lumière brothers. No compositions remind us of their Arrival of a Train (1897), for the train-cars that Hou captures on film rush by in no particular direction. The distance, continuity and immobility of the camera in Dust in the Wind have been effortlessly abandoned, and the constantly passing trains seem to have been transformed into something other than a mode of transportation.

And what about Hou Hsiao-hsien himself? Has he changed with Café Lumière? Or is he still the same? Is he perhaps in the midst of a decisive transformation? If he has already changed, does that mean that he has matured as a director?

All we can say for certain is that the thematic relationship between man and woman described in Millennium Mambo appears more intimately in Café Lumière. While we must not forget the silence between the boy and girl as they let themselves be rocked back and forth by the train in the opening of Dust in the Wind, we should expect from Hou new depictions of another dimension of love, one that transcends sex. But I am unable to know whether those new stories, too, will reverberate with the sound of passing trains.

This text is excerpted from Professor Hasumiís keynote lecture, ĎThe Eloquence of the Taciturn: An Essay on Hou Hsiao-hsiení, presented at the conference ĎAsiaís Hou Hsiao-hsien: Cinema History and Cultureí, organised by Asia Research Institute (National University of Singapore) and the Singapore History Museum, 29-30 April 2005. A book of conference proceedings, edited by Chen Kuan-Hsing, Wei Ti and Paul Willemen, is forthcoming in 2006.

 

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© Shigehiko Hasumi and Rouge 2005. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.
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