Yasujiro Ozu's most famous feature, Tokyo Story, opens and closes with matching shots of a train chugging across the screen, a gentle reminder of the passing of time and the distance that separates one family and one generation from the next. Produced in acknowledgement of the 100th year since Ozu's birth, Hou Hsiao-hsien's Café Lumière pays homage to the great director a bit too strenuously: Not only is the film framed by shots of trains, there's also a character who makes a hobby out of recording their ambient sounds. Though Hou subtly merges Ozu's style and themes with his own, the film nonetheless feels like an exercise, a minor collection of serene, exquisitely framed tableaux and half-formed incidents that never cohere into anything profound. Even a filmmaker as reserved as Ozu allowed for the occasional outpouring of emotions bottled up by traditional decorum, but Hou perversely refuses to follow through on his dramatic premises, confusing unstated with understated.
Residing in a tiny, unkempt Tokyo apartment, freelance writer Yo Hitoto (a Japanese pop star appearing in her first movie) occupies her endless free time by researching the life of Taiwanese singer Jiang Ewn-ye. To that end, she spends many afternoons at a secondhand bookstore, where she has a friendly rapport with store manager Tadanobu Asano, who clearly (though quietly) pines for her. Though raised by her uncle, Hitoto has a good relationship with her father (Nenji Kobayashi) and stepmother (Kimiko Yo), but she rattles them both when she flippantly announces that she's pregnant. She also plans to raise the baby alone, without needing its Taiwanese father, even though she doesn't appear to have the necessary resources. This causes some concern from her parents, but only her stepmother vocalizes it; her father remains resolutely silent.
All this intrigue may sound like a recipe for melodrama, but Hou isn't interested in turning up the burners. Café Lumière concerns feelings that can't be expressed, relationships that can't flower, and connections that are impossible to bridge. In that sense, it deviates from Ozu, whose characters are cloaked behind a refined set of traditional manners and values, yet possess deep reserves of feeling. Hou has always been more interested in drawing out the texture and ambience of certain settings than in exploring his characters' internal lives, which are frequently squashed by external forms of repression. There are undeniable similarities in the way these directors see the world—and Hou, to his credit, honors Ozu without mimicking him—but there's little vitality to this homage, no territory it can call its own.