Cinematic sublimity is an apt description for the works of Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963), from his initial hits in pre-second world war Tokyo until the end of his career some three decades later.
Late Autumn (1960), the director's third-to-last opus, may be wintry within the context of his filmography's timeline, but it exudes the same timeless aura as other "seasonal" Ozu classics such as Late Spring (1949) and Early Summer (1951), along with the auteur's most internationally famous film, Tokyo Story (1953).
A major factor that these productions have in common is the presence of Setsuko Hara, a leading lady whose outer beauty and inner luminosity became, under Ozu's direction, a bittersweet embodiment of human virtue.
In Late Autumn she is Akiko Miwa, a 40-something widow content to live with her husband's memory but whose single state becomes a concern of her daughter, Ayako (Yoko Tsukasa). The 23-year-old secretary is reluctant to wed and leave her mother alone, prompting her late father's three best pals to attempt to find suitors for both mother and lass.
Though the plot sounds tailor-made for a Hollywood-style sit-com, Ozu transforms it into something more ethereal, while at the same time preserving the premise's humour and humanity. As is the case with Ozu's entire oeuvre, subtlety is the underlying ethos - be it about character development, story twists, or lensing technique . Late Autumn's drama is thus in many ways the antithesis of "drama". There are outbursts of emotion and scenes of laughter, but they are handled with an unostentatious nuance that packs quite a wallop.
Particularly successful is the give and take between Akiko and Ayako, who clearly have a wonderful relationship despite an unmistakable generation gap. Similarly enjoyable to observe is the camaraderie among members of the trio of would-be matchmakers, whose decades of friendship - and admiration for Akiko - has led to a naturalistic ambience.
On a filmmaking note: the easy banter between the movie's denizens is also undoubtedly a product of their long association with Ozu: for example, Ryu Chishu's portrayal of Akiko's brother-in-law is his 22nd collaboration with the director.
Equally understated is the pictorial style so typical of Ozu that his name is virtually stamped upon every frame. The total lack of camera movement, precise composition of each image, and preference for low angles as if the audience is seated on a tatami mat, are elements refined by the auteur into an essence that is still yet never static. The visuals seamlessly integrate with the script to flawlessly convey Late Autumn's milieu.
What might have been a stylistic intrusion is the addition of colour photography, which Ozu utilised for the final six of his 50 feature films. Its use endows Late Autumn with a more modern feel than that afforded by black and white.
The same applies to the score by Saito Kojun that at times blends accordion and xylophone in a way reminiscent of Nino Rota's compositions for Federico Fellini. But Late Autumn is never Felliniesque; it is pure Ozu, and exquisitely so.
Late Autumn, November 2, 7.45pm, December 29, 2.30pm, Hong Kong Arts Centre, Wan Chai. Part of the HK Cine Fan programme