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You can’t beat an old master

by Mark Schilling

Coffee Jiko

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Hou Hsiao- hsien
Running time: 103 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
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Yasujiro Ozu’s trademark style — the low camera angles, the straight cuts, the actors talking at the camera in medium closeup — has inspired book-length studies and earned him a lofty place in the directorial pantheon. It also inspired homages such as Jun Ichikawa’s “Tokyo Kyodai (Tokyo Siblings),” but Ozu, a hermetic genius whose aesthetics were a closed system, has produced no school of disciples.

For the 100th anniversary of his birth in 2003, the Shochiku studio, where Ozu spent his entire career, planned to release a tribute film with eminent directors from around the world contributing segments. One, the Taiwanese Hou Hsiao-hsien, wanted to make a feature, not a short, however, and Shochiku, which had written and distributed several of Hou’s films agreed to finance it.

Hou began shooting in Japan in August 2003 and Shochiku held a world premiere of the completed film, “Coffee Jiko (Cafe Lumiere)” in Tokyo on Dec. 12 of that year, on what would have been Ozu’s 100th birthday.

Why has it taken Shochiku nearly a year to release “Coffee Jiko” in the theaters? First, Hou kept tinkering with the edit. Second, Shochiku wanted to screen the film at overseas festivals, and hopefully pick up a few awards before braving the local market.

Hou has often said his own style is quite unlike Ozu’s — which “Coffee Jiko” confirms. His subject — a young woman faces a major life change — has an Ozu-esque ring, but her specific situation — she becomes pregnant with a man she has no intention of marrying — does not. Also, though the film has its Ozu-esque moments, it is less a shot-for-shot homage than Hou’s channeling of Ozu’s spirit through his own artistic filter.

Unlike the many Asian directors who see Japan through the dark lens of the country’s imperialist past, Hou has a genuine affection for the place. In “Coffee Jiko,” downtown Tokyo looks almost eerily beautiful, while the people are the sort of “gentle Japanese” (yasashii nihonjin) that Ozu would have felt comfortable with.

Also, Hou has overcome the usual linguistic and other barriers well enough. Unlike “Lost in Translation,” with its generic Japanalia, “Coffee Jiko” feels comfortably inside the culture.

That said, it lacks the insight and urgency of Hou’s best work. Like Ozu, Hou is a profoundly domestic type, whose best films are dramas about Taiwanese from his own milieu and of his or his parent’s generation (“A Summer at Grandpa’s,” “City of Sadness”). This is one Asian director who will never go to Hollywood. Perhaps he should have set his Ozu homage in Taipei.

His heroine is Yoko (Yo Hitoto), a young freelance writer just back from a research trip to Taiwan. The subject of her latest project: a real-life Taiwanese composer, Jiang Wen-ye (Japanese name: Ko Bunya), who spent much of his life in Japan and, before and during the war, served as a cultural bridge between Japan and its Chinese-speaking colonies.

She visits the used-book shop of Hajime (Tadanobu Asano) — a soft-spoken hippie type who has become a friend and confidant. She also pays a call at the tempura restaurant run by Seiji (Masato Hagiwara), whom she came to know through Hajime.

It is not, however, until she returns to Takasaki — where her father (Nenji Kobayashi) is living with her stepmother (Kimiko Yo) — that she delivers the big news that she is pregnant and intends to raise her child as a single mother. The couple is stunned, but Yoko is determined and they, particularly her father, have no intention of fighting her. There is a reason for his silence: He and Yoko’s mother divorced when Yoko was a child and she was raised by her uncle in Hokkaido. He has a good relationship with her now — but he doesn’t want to risk it.

Plot-wise, there isn’t much more. Yoko returns to Tokyo where she continues her research with Hajime’s help. She tags along when he pursues his unusual hobby of recording train sounds. Hajime cares for her when she collapses with morning sickness. She hangs out with him at a favorite coffee shop. Then her father and stepmother come to Tokyo for a funeral — and she makes a decision.

The film’s theme of miscommunication among family members is a familiar one from Ozu’s work. The lying adult children of the elderly visiting parents in “Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story)” are but one of many examples. Ozu, however, meticulously shaped every line and gesture, while taking care to make his audience empathize with his characters as they might their own family.

Instead of stylizing his material in the Ozu manner, Hou prefers to capture significant moments in the flow of the everyday. Also, instead of coaching his actors to the last blink and nod, as Ozu was known for, he has them play their scenes with a minimum of actorly inflection.

Asano, who has seemingly appeared in every Japanese indie film of note for the past decade, delivers the strong, if relaxed, performance Hou requires. Though barely moving a muscle, he provides the film’s emotional backbone.

Hitoto, a singer who recently started acting, is a pleasingly feisty presence — and not much more. By comparison, Setsuo Hara, Ozu’s favorite actress, could express the pathos of life — and make the audience weep buckets — by lowering her eyes and turning her head just so. Of course, she was a great talent working for a great master. Seeing “Coffee Jiko,” I realized again how rare and precious a combination that was.