Inspired by the centenary of Japanese master filmmaker Yasujirô Ozu's birth, Hou Hsiao-hsien's poetic Café Lumière charts the uneasy maturation of a Japanese reporter named Yoko (Yo Hitoto) as she researches an article on real-life Taiwanese musician Jiang Wenye and copes with an unexpected pregnancy—and looming single-motherhood—that's frowned upon by her traditional parents. The film, set in Tokyo and its surrounding suburbs, marks Hou's first movie situated outside of his native Taiwan, and the new locale proves well-suited to yet another one of the director's languorous ruminations on the relationship between the inescapable past, hesitant present, and daunting future. Plentiful shots of passing commuter trains recall Ozu's Tokyo Story, while the intimate scenes between Yoko and her quietly disapproving father (who's struggling to accept Yoko's desire for a non-nuclear family) are reminiscent of Late Autumn, yet Café Lumière—its title a reference to the Lumière brothers' seminal short film of a train entering a station—is distinctly Hou's. As is his hallmark, the director's formal rigorousness takes the form of measured, protracted takes in which the camera detachedly lingers on its protagonists (or, at times, on mundane, uninhabited scenery), and both the general absence of a score and Mark Lee Ping-bin's delicate, naturalistic cinematography—a far cry from his color-saturated work on Hou's Millennium Mambo—create a mood of enveloping serenity.
The image of Yoko's stepmother working in the kitchen, tightly framed by multiple doorways, highlights the constricting conventional role of a homemaker that Yoko, by choosing to have her child out of wedlock, yearns to reject, and a scene in which the two women have to borrow sake and glasses from Yoko's next-door neighbor—a request that makes the stepmother, but not Yoko, feel ashamed—elucidates the widening generational gap between the girl and her parents. For Hou, the past and present are constantly engaged in a tug-of-war, and the director captures the oppressive, inexorable march of time weighing down upon Yoko and her friend—a bookstore owner named Hajime (Tadanobu Asano, star of Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer)—through a series of stunning sequences: Yoko's dream about a child's face turning first wrinkly and then to ice (a nightmare of impending maternity begat by her long-ago reading of Maurice Sendak's Outside Over There); the vision of a pocket watch set against the front windshield of a moving train; and a computer's digital clock screensaver seen at the train station Yoko used to depart from as a young student. In the same vein, Hajime's computer-generated artwork, featuring a fetal version of himself encased in a womb of locomotives, visualizes the inescapable omnipresence of time's progression, and the young man's hobby of dutifully recording train noises—an attempt to sonically capture the essence of life in motion—ultimately becomes an understated metaphor for Hou's tender, observant, contemplative cinema.