Now it happens that in this country (Japan) the empire of signifiers is so immense, so in excess of speech, that the exchange of signs remains of a fascinating richness, mobility, and subtlety, despite the opacity of the language, sometimes even as a consequence of that opacity.

—Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs (1)

Actually, it is very difficult to cross national borders and shoot the film of a different culture. How many successful films have you seen? There are very few. The reason is very simple. For example, when we look at Asian-themed films made by foreign companies, it’s not accurate. When we watch their films about Chinese people, it’s not accurate. It’s a very big challenge, because they don’t know about the Chinese way of life, daily rituals, etc. But I feel this is interesting. It’s a challenge; it’s pretty interesting.

—Hou Hsiao-hsien interview in Métro Lumière (2004) (2)

Transnational cinema offers unique opportunities for reflecting on globalization—in terms of co-production and reception (3)—and the theme of “East Meets West.” (4) Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s two recent cinematic tributes—to Japanese auteur Ozu Yasujiro in Café Lumière (2003), and to French director Albert Lamorisse in Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge (2007)—offer two versions of cross-cultural and intertextual reference: “East Meets East” (Taiwan/Japan) and “East Meet West” (Taiwan/France). For Café Lumière, Hou Hsiao-hsien was commissioned by Shochiku studios to create a film in homage to Ozu Yasujiro marking the centenary of Ozu’s birth. Café Lumière reveals both similarities and differences between the Tokyo of Ozu’s time and that of the present, and between Ozu’s cinema and that of Hou. Ballon Rouge bears some resemblance to fellow Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang’s film What Time Is It There? (2001) about a Taiwanese woman who goes to Paris and a young man in Taipei who becomes obsessed with François Truffaut and the time difference between Taipei and Paris. Like Tsai’s film, Ballon Rouge suggests something beyond the “influence” of European cinema masterpieces and the reverence implied by the word “homage.” Rather, following Fran Martin’s reading of Tsai’s film, Hou’s work also “reflexively foregrounds the question of transcultural citation, drawing attention to the history of citations by Taiwan New Cinema and second wave directors of aspects of the European new wave cinemas,” and like Tsai’s film, “explores the question of postcolonial temporality.” (5) In Ballon Rouge, Hou foregrounds his role as a foreign director creating a portrait of Paris by including a directorial double in the character of Beijing film student and au pair Song Fang, who, in a kind of mise-en-abîme, is also working on a film tribute to Lamorisse’s Le Ballon Rouge (1956).

In Métro Lumière, a short French promotional film about the making of Café Lumière with the tongue-in-cheek credits “Made in Taiwan, Assembled in France, Big in Japan,” the narrator Dominique Blanc explains that,

“Here, in Taiwan, Hou Hsiao-hsien is considered to be a master, who knows how to capture the meanderings of his country’s history in the present. The film he has just finished shooting is an homage to a Japanese director who died in 1963, Yasujiro Ozu. He is the unchallenged master of sublimated everyday routine. The film Café Lumière is therefore a place where two artists cross paths.”

The voiceover explains to its Western audience that the island of Taiwan was a Japanese colony for 50 years, until 1945. Over footage of youthful crowds in neon-lit Taipei settings that resemble Tokyo, Hou says, “I was under the influence of Japan subconsciously since I was young” through such things as translations of Japanese novels, Japanese movies, Japanese karaoke songs with Taiwanese versions, and Japanese words incorporated into the Min Nan dialect. He explains that by the time he filmed Café Lumière, his feeling towards Japan had changed, “It’s a special nation. You can’t just say it’s good or anything. Basically, you need to come to an understanding, and how to get along with it. You need to know why there was a Second World War, what happened, et cetera”

Hou admits that his first encounter with an Ozu film, An Autumn Afternoon (1962) did not impress him, and he explains that this was perhaps because he was not mature enough. But later, on the recommendation of a friend while staying in Paris, he watched a silent Ozu film I Was Born, But… (1932), which he felt was very good. In order to make Café Lumière, he wanted to understand the background of “Yasujiro’s” films (using the more familiar given name). He argues that, “Yasujiro’s early films already had a kind of feeling and taste of life. At that time it was more cheerful and relaxed” but that “After World War II, the defeat of Japan, in the process of rebuilding Japan, there were a lot of changes and industrialization. There was a kind of worry. He added this worry to his movies, adding to his feeling towards life, making it thicker. Japan today is completely different.” He explains that there is still the problem of family, but that this problem is very different from before, since “the ability of women to involve themselves in society and survive on their own is much different than before.” Therefore, the plot of Café Lumière focuses on a contemporary Japanese young woman named Yoko who lives her life alone. For this role, Hou cast a popular musician Yo Hitoto, who was born in Tokyo to a Taiwanese father and Japanese mother. Yoko is researching a Taiwanese musician Jiang Wen-ye. Jiang was successful in Japan in the 1930s (the time of Ozu’s films) and married a Japanese wife, whom Yoko interviews, looking through her scrapbook and marveling at their storybook love for each other. Already, we can see Hou’s technique of creating a complex transcultural narrative through casting choices, intertextuality, and mirroring devices (Yo is half Taiwanese-Japanese, like the relationship her character is researching, and the film in which she stars).

The major departure from Ozu’s ethos can be seen in Yoko’s decision to keep the baby she is carrying from her Taiwanese boyfriend, but not to marry him. Ian Johnston explains:

her reaction to this is the clearest sign of Café Lumière’s distance from Ozu’s work; of the distance of young contemporary Japanese from their counterparts in Ozu’s time; and of how distant Hou and [scriptwriter] Chu [Tien-wen]’s vision of their characters is from that of Ozu and his co-scriptwriter Kogo Noda. Yoko informs her parents that she is going to keep this child, but she is not going to marry the father. There’s no sense that she in any way proposes to consult them for advice or talk the issue through with them, let alone defer to an elder in the more traditional Confucian fashion… The film completely validates the individual acting in and for herself. (6)

So, Johnston argues, “in Café Lumière there are some parallels with Ozu’s world, but there is also considerable distance, just as there is distance between the films of Ozu and those of Hou.” (7) He points out that despite some cinematic nods to Ozu in Café Lumière, Hou’s approach to filmmaking is markedly different. Ozu’s cinema is famous for its intimate “tatami shot” low camera, and for its divergence from classical Hollywood rules of continuity (such as the 180° system for camera placement and editing). By contrast, Hou’s cinema is famous for its long takes and the distance kept from the characters. Most notably, Ozu’s films were popular with mass audiences, whereas Johnston notes that the only concession to popular tastes made by Hou is the casting of pop stars and use of pop music to accompany the closing credits. Yet Hou makes intertextual references to Ozu’s films (such as the scene where Yoko and her mother-in-law borrow sake from a neighbour, reminding us of a similar scene in Tokyo Story). He also borrows a salient motif from Ozu: the image of trains (symbol of modernity, the distance between rural and urban life, and between family members. In fact, Hou’s much earlier film Goodbye, South, Goodbye (1993) already used this train motif with a similar meaning).

The narrator of Métro Lumière suggests that, “Hou Hsiao-hsien wants to film our present. But how does one work in an unknown language? How to invent a story in a country where one is a foreigner? How to write a script when one wants to capture the truth of the instant?” Hou argues that it is possible to “see the details of the real Japan after careful observation.” He explains that he learned about his location by studying maps of the Tokyo subway system. All of his research finds textual representation in Yoko’s friend Hajime (Tadanobu Asano), a used-bookstore keeper who obsessively records train sounds and creates digital artwork of himself as a fetus in the womb surrounded by the trains of the JR line. In another transcultural gesture, Yoko gives Hajime a gift from her research trip to Taiwan, a pocket watch celebrating the 116th anniversary of Taiwan’s rail system. (8) Hou and his producer and editor Liao Ching-Song explain that it was impossible to obtain permission to film on the JR line, due to safety restrictions, but that Hou felt that if he couldn’t shoot on the JR “then it’s all over,” so they filmed on the sly for about 20–30 days with cinematographer Lee Ping-Bing, all dressed in shorts with black shirts to avoid reflection: “It looked like an open secret activity. People could tell that we were not Japanese.”

Hou explains that unlike Ozu’s studio era, that involved precise planning, down to the amount of footage used, his method involves shooting on location with an open set and multiple takes on different days, working through “observation of reality and continuous adjusting.” Thus, when asked what finally “is left of the model of this homage, then? What do we see of Ozu in your film, Mr. Hou?” he says “If the audience were interested, they can watch this film with one of Yasujiro’s films, such as Late Spring. They should have a better understanding of Ozu’s method. He’s like a mirror in front of you. We shot similar themes, but with different methods of shooting. This is how we honour him.”

Tadanobu Asano explains that, “A non-Japanese movie director made a movie casting all the Japanese actors. Well, Yo is half Taiwanese. I’m not 100% Japanese either. All these different people worked together to make a Japanese movie … and the end product is a very natural-looking Japanese movie.” Hou likewise remarks, “After filming, I was worried about whether the Japanese thought it was Japanese. After watching it, they all said that they had never watched a movie that was more like Japan. But they mentioned something to me. In Japan, it’s rare, almost impossible to have a Japanese director make a movie like this.” Perhaps this is because of Hou’s defiance of the usual working methods of Japanese filmmaking (by shooting on location without permits, allowing non-professional actors in the scene, shooting multiple takes). (9) Johnston also notes that, “At times, there’s definitely an outsider’s perspective operating. A Japanese filmmaker would surely never dwell so long on the streams of passersby at the train stations or in the streets, let alone offer the repeated shots of fascinated close-ups of a train driver’s white-gloved hands. But Hou and Chu have made these characters their own.” One could say the same about the Westerner’s (perhaps more typically “Orientalist”) fascination with Tokyo visible in Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation (2003). Yet in both of these films by outsiders with clearly different geopolitical relationships to Japan, “the exchange of signs remains of a fascinating richness,” as Barthes noted, because “the empire of signifiers is so immense, so in excess of speech.” (10)

Like Café Lumière, critics in France who responded positively to Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge were surprised by how well a foreign director was able to capture the je ne sais quoi of Parisian everyday life. On a Culture 8 broadcast dedicated to the film, Vincent Julé, a journalist with “Écran Large,” remarks that “je n’ai jamais vu un film qui capté aussi bien la vie de Paris, mais sûrtout des Parisiens. Ce n’est pas cliché, ce n’est pas carte postale, non, pour moi qui habite en Paris, c’est vraiment le Paris beau, gris, tout, et c’est un réalisateur étranger qui arrive sur ça” (“I have never seen a film which captures the life of Paris so well, but above all the life of Parisians. It’s not cliché, it’s not a postcard, no, for me who lives in Paris, it’s truly Paris—beautiful, grey, everything—and it’s a foreign director who arrives at this”). (11) On my reading, this is a result of Hou’s unique approach to watching/listening to his characters and settings that is simultaneously distant and intimate.

Also like Café Lumière, Ballon Rouge was commissioned, by the Musée d’Orsay, and is an homage to both Albert Lamorisse’s short film –about a lonely boy, played by Lamorisse’s son, who befriends a magically personified red balloon (12)– and a painting in the Orsay museum, Félix Vallotton’s The Balloon. These two intertexts act as bookends for the film itself: it starts with its young boy protagonist Simon (Simon Iteanu) talking to the off-screen balloon trying to convince it to come down from a Métro stop. The balloon follows him on to the subway, and is pushed away by adults in the same manner seen in Lamorisse’s original. But for the rest of the film, the balloon is more of a background character, a possible symbol of Simon’s somewhat detached position within the “complicated” adult social world of his frazzled mother Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), (13) a puppet vocalist who is recently separated from her husband and has hired an au pair named Song Fang (the actress’ actual name) to look after Simon. Song Fang’s character was a film student in Beijing, and is currently working on a film about Le Ballon Rouge (Leo Goldsmith speculates that the opening segment of the film is perhaps supposed to be an excerpt from her film rather than Hou’s). (14) She films everything she sees using her video camera, which Julé notes functions as a kind of mise-en-abîme.

Hou cleverly includes dialogue that comments simultaneously on her films and on the film we are watching (Hou’s). One metacinematic moment is like a magician showing how a trick was performed: Song says, “I want to make a short film about red balloons,” and explains the ability to digitally erase a boy dressed in green holding the balloon, causing Suzanne to remark that it is “incredible what you can do now.” During this conversation, Suzanne refers to two other films: (a) an 8mm film of her grandfather, who was also a puppeteer, which she asked Song to get digitally transferred, and later watches on a small screen while adding commentary, surprising Simon who asks her how she knows what they are saying on the silent film; and (b) she returns a copy of Song’s film Origins, which she had praised earlier, saying,

“I found it very touching … It has a certain abstract quality. It reminded me of childhood. My room was on a mezzanine too [pointing to their apartment]. When my parents were together, I would hear everything. It was like an echo chamber. When my parents put the key in the lock, I heard it. Your film somehow brought all that back. Sounds, images … Your film touches on very deep feelings I’d almost forgotten…”

Suzanne’s invocation of Song’s film and its Proustian activation of childhood memories of adult household noises also fits Hou’s film, especially the ending where Song discovers that Simon has crawled into bed in his mezzanine bedroom, and the audience is encouraged to reflect on the child’s acoustic relation to the earlier sounds of Song putting things away in the kitchen.

Gilles Deleuze has noted the importance of the figure of the child within post-war cinema. This cinema, Deleuze argues, departs from the classical cinema of the “movement-image” towards a cinema of the “time-image” in which we are presented with pure optical and sound situations. Deleuze sees Ozu’s cinema as an example, but the relationship between duration and perception/audition is also what makes Hou’s cinema so remarkable. In Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Deleuze explains:

In Volume 1 the crisis of the action-image was defined by … the slackening of the sensory-motor connections … the new image … is the purely optical and sound situation which takes the place of the faltering sensory-motor situations. The role of the child in neo-realism has been pointed out, notably in De Sica (and later in France with Truffaut); this is because, in the adult world, the child is affected by a certain motor helplessness, but one which makes him all the more capable of seeing and hearing. (15)

The kind of European cinema described by Deleuze is often cited in the films of Taiwanese “new wave” directors. Yet Fran Martin suggests in “The European Undead: Tsai Ming-liang’s Temporal Dysphoria” that the teleological developmentalist narrative implied by the notion of European “influence” needs to be rethought with a sensitivity to postcolonial time:

In sum, the signifier “Europe” works in contradictory ways in contemporary Taiwanese film and public culture. On the one hand, “Europe” may offer itself as an imaginative resource by means of which the specific regional history of American post-war cultural dominance is implicitly critiqued by Tsai and other Taiwan filmmakers. On the other hand, however, “Europe” also functions as a mythologized cultural “other” that is sometimes conflated with “the west” in general … it is this relation to which I think Tsai’s film [What Time Is It There?] speaks most powerfully in its structuring obsession with the temporal disjuncture between Taipei and Paris. I use the term “postcolonial,” then, in the relatively broad sense of designating the relation of alterity self-perceived by Taiwanese intellectuals to “Europe” as a mythic geo-cultural formation connoting modernity, a relation conditioned by the persistent modern division of the world into “east” and “west. (16)

While Martin notes that this division is losing credibility in a polycentric and postcolonial world, it still haunts Tsai’s films and those of his Taiwanese contemporaries. We could extend Martin’s analysis of cinematic “chronopolitics” to Hou’s films, which are haunted by both Ozu and European modernism.

Deleuze also argued that everyday banality becomes important in these films because “being subject to sensory-motor schemata which are automatic” it is “all the more liable, on the slightest disturbance of equilibrium” suddenly to “free itself from the laws of this schema and reveal itself in a visual and sound nakedness.” (17) Ozu’s, Tsai’s, and Hou’s films focus on everyday banality in a way that liberates them from the need for action, and instead encourages sensitivity to the passage of time, and the image and soundtrack as purely optical and sound situations. Hou’s relationship to his subjects and locations is thus simultaneously intimate and distant, which parallel’s Song’s relationship to her host family. Song and Hou’s cameras record “the life of Paris” (often in reflective glass) in a way that approaches the state Roland Barthes described as “the Neutral” in his 1977–1978 lecture course at the Collège de France:

Going out, evenings at dusk, sharply receiving tiny, perfectly futile details of street life: the menu written in chalk on the windowpane of a café (chicken mashed potato, 16 francs 50—kidneys crème fraîche, 16 francs 10), a tiny priest in a cassock walking up the rue Médicis, etc., I had this vivid intuition (for me, the urban dusk has a great power of crispness, of activation, it’s almost a drug) that to fall into the infinitely futile helps one’s awareness of the feeling of life (it’s after all a novelistic rule). Tact is thus on the side of vividness, of what allows life to be felt, of what stirs the awareness of it. (18)

This aptly describes the vividness of Hou’s cinema that is remarkably “tactful” in its reception of the details of street life. Take for instance the café scenes with Simon and Song in which they discuss Simon’s sister Louise and how she used to bring him there, while Hou transitions subtly to a flashback illustrating their present conversation—an example of what Deleuze refers to as the crystal-image:

in fact the crystal constantly exchanges the two images which constitute it, the actual image of the present which passes and the virtual image of the past which is preserved: distinct yet indiscernible, and all the more indiscernible because distinct, because we do not yet now which is one and which is the other. (19)

Hou had experimented with this technique of ambiguous flashback/illustration in his Taiwanese historical portrait The Puppetmaster (1993).

Like the ideal of the “au pair” (on par) relationship, Hou’s narrative emphasizes mutual cross-cultural learning. For instance, the mother/employer Suzanne is studying the art of Chinese puppetry, perhaps hearkening back to The Puppetmaster. This also recalls Café Lumière’s portrayal of a Yoko returning from a research trip to Taiwan. Ironically, while the French journalist previously quoted praised Hou’s film for not being like a picture postcard of Paris, within Hou’s film a postcard functions as an object of exchange that throws the issue of cross-cultural communication into relief in a way that has implications for both of the films discussed here. On the train back from a lecture on Chinese puppetry techniques by puppet master Ah Zhong, Suzanne asks Song to translate for her and offers him a gift, a postcard of an image she saw at the British Museum when she was working there as a nanny, which for her represents “something profoundly Chinese.” Leo Goldsmith notes that:

In any other film, a French woman telling a Chinese character through a Chinese translator what she believes is quintessentially Chinese would stick out like a sore thumb, likely as an outright indictment of the French woman’s blinkered provinciality. But as usual, Hou is after something far subtler, a simple marker of the intersection of East and West that calls attention to the dovetailing processes of translation and adaptation in which the characters are involved. (20)

Beyond the image it bears, the postcard recalls her days as an au pair, mirroring Song’s current role. This is in keeping with Hou’s use of reflexive devices to examine travel and cross-cultural translation. Whether Ah Zhong recognizes himself in Suzanne’s image of “la Chine profonde,” or whether French or Japanese audiences recognize themselves as accurately reflected in Hou’s films, what he foregrounds is the gesture, the “exchange of signs” in excess of speech. In Hou’s homages, Lamorisse and Ozu may act “like a mirror in front of you,” but perhaps what we see is more like the dense overlay of images in the reflective glass of Hou’s cafés.

This article has been peer reviewed


  1. Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982, pp. 9–10.
  2. From the Café Lumière DVD extra, Métro Lumière: Hou Hsiao-Hsien à la rencontre de Yasujirô Ozu, directed by Harold Manning.
  3. Notably, the French and Japanese co-production, funding, and enthusiastic reception of recent films by Taiwan directors Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang, and Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai. On Taiwan New Cinema and Café Lumière, see Brian Hu, “Darkness and Light,” Asia Pacific Arts, 12 May 2005: <http://www.asiaarts.ucla.edu/article.asp?parentid=24109>.
  4. I would like to thank the organizers of the Asian Conference on Arts and Humanities with the theme of “East Meets West” (18–21 June 2010, Osaka, Japan) for the opportunity to present a version of this work.
  5. Fran Martin, “The European Undead: Tsai Ming-liang’s Temporal Dysphoria,” Senses of Cinema 3, No. 27 (2003): <http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/03/27/tsai_european_undead.html>.
  6. Ian Johnston, “Train to Somewhere: Hou Hsiao-hsien Pays Sweet Homage to Ozu in Café Lumière,” Bright Lights Film Journal 48 (May 2005): <http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/48/cafe.php>.
  7. ibid.
  8. This may also recall the watch given as an intergenerational gift at the end of Ozu’s Tokyo Story.
  9. Johnston points out another densely transcultural and intertextual gesture: “a cameo appearance by film critic Shiguehiko Hasumi—author of an excellent book on Ozu only available in the West in French—playing a café waiter delivering coffee.”
  10. Barthes, Empire of Signs, pp. 9–10. Of course, Barthes’s use of the term “empire” in his work must be reexamined in the face of more recent permutations of American and Japanese political and cultural imperialism (and their effects on Coppola and Hou).
  11. My translation. See: Culture 8, “Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge,” interview with Simon Iteanu, Juliette Binoche, and Vincent Julé (2008): <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7X9mIwY4SJU>.
  12. See Bérénice Reynaud’s comparison of the films in “From One Red Balloon to the Next: The 2007 AFI Fest/American Film Market,” Senses of Cinema No. 46 Festival Resports: <http://sensesofcinema.com/2008/festival-reports/afi-afm-2007/>.
  13. Binoche’s compelling performance as a distraught French bourgeois woman links intertextually to her similar roles in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Trois couleurs: Bleu (1993) and Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005). Both of those films are also by national “outsiders” who nonetheless incisively portray Paris.
  14. Leo Goldsmith, “World Tourist,” Reverse Shot 26: <http://www.reverseshot.com/article/8_flight_red_balloon>.
  15. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989, p. 3.
  16. Martin, “The European Undead,”
  17. Deleuze, p. 3.
  18. Roland Barthes, The Neutral: Lecture Course at the Collège de France (1977–1978), trans. Rosalind Kraus, New York: Columbia University Press, 2005, p. 47.
  19. Deleuze, Cinema 2, p. 81.
  20. Goldsmith, “World Tourist,”

About The Author

Nicholas de Villiers teaches film, gender/sexuality studies, and literature in the department of English at the University of North Florida, Jacksonville. He is currently working on two book projects: Opacities: Life, Image, Sound in Foucault, Barthes, and Warhol (University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming); and a manuscript on ethnographic documentary and the cultural study of sex work.

Related Posts