Cafe Lumiere

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien

Written by Hou and Chu T’ien-wen

With Yo Hitoto, Tadanobu Asano, Masato Hagiwara, Kimiko Yo, and Nenji Kobayashi

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World

*** (A must see)

Directed and written by Albert Brooks

With Brooks, Sheetal Sheth, John Carroll Lynch, Jon Tenney, and Fred Dalton Thompson

“It’s very difficult to cross national borders and shoot a film about a different culture. How many films have you seen that do that successfully? There are very few. The reason is very simple. When we look at films [about our own country] made by foreign companies, they’re not accurate. . . . But it’s an interesting challenge.”

This could be Albert Brooks talking about the making of his funny new feature, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, most of it filmed in New Delhi. But it’s actually Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien speaking about Cafe Lumiere, which was shot in Japan. Both filmmakers are pushing 60, and both prefer filming in long shot and extended takes. And both their movies are acute, measured observations of contemporary life and thought, whether we happen to be based in LA or Tokyo.

Cafe Lumiere (2003) was commissioned by the Japanese studio Shochiku, which asked Hou to create an homage to its most famous house director, Yasujiro Ozu, in celebration of the centennial of his birth. It’s a return to form for Hou, after the formalism of Flowers of Shanghai (1998) and the emptiness of Millennium Mambo (2001)–and his best film since The Puppetmaster (1993). It’s also his most minimalist effort to date, slow to reveal its depths and beauties, and it marks a rejuvenation of his art, confirmed by his subsequent film, the far from minimalist Three Times (2005), shot in Taiwan.

Cafe Lumiere is a look at everyday Japanese life and how it’s changed since Ozu’s heyday. It uses some of Ozu’s visual motifs–trains, clotheslines–and it beautifully reflects what English critic Tony Rayns has called the “persuasive” unassertiveness that characterizes much of Ozu’s late work. It’s an outsider’s view of Japan that’s really a two-way mirror, because the obsessive preoccupation of its 23-year-old Japanese heroine, Yoko (Yo Hitoto), a freelance writer based in Tokyo, is investigating the life of Taiwanese classical composer Jiang Wenye. Roughly a contemporary of Ozu, Jiang was born in Taiwan and educated in Japan, then spent most of the remainder of his life in mainland China. The only music heard in the film, besides a pop song over the final credits, is a selection of piano pieces he composed in Japan during the 1920s and ’30s; they provide a historical and cultural filter through which we perceive the present. Yoko has just returned from Taiwan, where she’s been researching Jiang’s roots while teaching Japanese. She’s pregnant with the child of one of her students, and she tells her elderly parents that she intends to raise the child alone–a clear sign of the differences between Japanese life today and the life chronicled by Ozu.

Taiwan was a Japanese colony for 50 years, until 1945, only two years before Hou was born, and Japanese culture undoubtedly had a lingering effect on many aspects of Taiwanese life. Hou, who’s long had an interest in Ozu, shares the older director’s fascination with trains, and in Cafe Lumiere one of Yoko’s friends, Hajime (Tadanobu Asano), who runs a used-book store, is obsessed with recording the sounds of trains.

Like Ozu, Hou is mainly nonjudgmental about his characters, though he does manage to suggest over the course of his almost plotless narrative that Yoko and Hajime are somewhat indiscriminate collectors whose preoccupation with music and trains shows more compulsiveness than passion. This may be a critique of contemporary life–something also hinted at in the film’s Japanese title, Coffee Jikou, which means “coffee, time, light”–but if so, it’s a judicious one that only adds to the sense of serene clarity.

The clarity of Albert Brooks is far from serene, and Sony backed away from distributing Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World last year after Brooks refused to change its title. His film is especially welcome now because it frankly admits that most Americans are ignorant about Muslims and have a lot to learn, in contrast with the few other Hollywood movies dealing with Muslims–Syriana, Munich–which seem to suggest that non-Muslim viewers can emerge knowing the score.

Brooks plays a blundering fool heading up a State Department study of what gets people to laugh in India and Pakistan, and he makes a lot of the mistakes Americans have in the third world, however noble their intentions. The focus here is less on those countries than on our failure to understand them, but he pushes self-scrutiny beyond national terms and into something much more personal.

This is the triumph of Looking for Comedy, Brooks’s seventh feature, but it’s also its limitation. The film has competing agendas: Sometimes it critiques myopic self-absorption–for example, Brooks’s character’s failure as a comic performer in New Delhi, where he revives some of his old routines even though the locals won’t get the references to things like Halloween and ventriloquism. Yet at other times it asks us to identify with his bemusement. To complicate matters further, Brooks’s real-life concerns about his own aging and dwindling career are front and center in the opening scene. They plainly motivate his character to accept this muddled assignment and agree to return with a 500-page report–he hopes it will earn him a Freedom Medal, boosting his image. But satire inflected by sharp self-mockery (he’s embarrassed about being Jewish in India) doesn’t always mesh well with sentimental genre conventions (he sweetly advises his Indian girl Friday about her jealous boyfriend).

As Brooks has noted, playing a semifictional character named Albert Brooks, which he also did in Real Life (1979), is similar to what Jack Benny used to do on radio and TV. But there’s a significant difference between the obnoxiously aggressive Brooks in Real Life and the passively reactive one here, and I’m not convinced there’s any comic gain.

Since his first three features, Brooks’s energy and invention have diminished, perhaps because he keeps trying to score commercially–an impulse that’s yielded the contrived happy endings of Defending Your Life (1991) and Mother (1996), the awkward guest-star cameos in The Muse (1999), and the determination here to be pointed and provocative if never scathing. Still, I like all of Brooks’s features, which are brilliantly conceptualized and deftly executed. This one’s no exception, and some of the laughs are genuinely cathartic.

Cafe Lumiere

When: Multiple screeenings daily

Where: Music Box, 3733 N. Southport

Price: $8.25-$9.25

Info: 773-871-6604

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World

Where: Multiple venues