The Red Balloon

It is now a done deal: at the beginning of November, the American Film Institute Festival (1-11 November) and the American Film Market (31 October-7 November) are held quasi-simultaneously – one in a heart-of-Hollywood compound that includes the 14 screens of the Arclight Theater, the Cinerama Dome with its glamorous curved screen, an upscale gym, a cooking academy, several chic boutiques, an expensive-and-slow restaurant, a gift shop, and several stories of parking that overflow at the peak of the Festival – the other at the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica, spilling over to the next-door Marigot, with screenings held in local commercial theatres accessible through a shuttle. Lacking geographical logic, the pairing has the advantage of creating a media buzz, and a few films are fortunate enough to be screened in both events – such as John Sayles’ Honeydripper, Cecilia Miniucchi’s Expired, the US premiere of a new Hong Kong import, courtesy of a collaboration between Johnny To and Wai Ka-fai, Shen Tan (Mad Detective), and the long-expected second feature film by Li Yang, Mang Shan (Blind Mountain – see below).

In the past years, the AFI festival had drawn a lot of criticism because of the mainstream quality of its curatorial choices. The tables seem to have turned with the appointment, last May, of Rose Kuo as Artistic Director. A second-generation Chinese-American, Kuo had recently emerged from a six-year self-imposed “sabbatical” by exploring her cultural roots and moving to Shanghai for ten months to do research on her family history. She has a double background in film production (as an assistant editor, post-production supervisor and executive producer) and in film festivals (starting as a volunteer for Berlin, she occupied several positions at Mill Valley, San Francisco and finally Santa Barbara, where she programmed Asian films for four years). She developed an interest in Third World cinema before refocusing on Asian films. A sign of this new opening was in the programming of the Milestones section. While it was sad and infuriating to witness how many magazines, film journals and venues limited themselves to paying tribute to the two great dead men of the summer – Antonioni and Bergman – it was immensely gratifying to see that Kuo had not forgotten, that, the same summer, two non-Western giants had passed away as well, one from Senegal – Ousmane Sembène, “the Father of African Cinema” (1923-2007) (1) – the other from Taiwan – Edward Yang (1947-2007), one of the luminaries of the New Taiwanese Cinema. (2) A fifth name was added: Hungarian-born cinematographer Lászlo Kovács (1933-2007). (3)

It would be hard to completely change the nature of the Festival, which owes a lot of its funding to Hollywood, and the opening and gala events featured premieres of soon-to-be-commercially released flicks: Robert Redford’s Lion for Lambs, Jason Reitman’s Juno, and Mike Newell’s Love in the Time of Cholera. Yet, Kuo gracefully invited writers who had been critical of the festival in the past to introduce screenings – I was asked to present Ed Yang’s intriguing modernist tale, Konbu Fenzi (Terrorizer, 1986) – so an atmosphere of cordiality prevailed. Here and there you could hear remarks such as “this movie would never have been shown here before.” One such fare, indeed (and one of Kuo’s self-professed favourites), was Solos, shot on video for a song and co-directed by two young Singaporean men, Kan Lume and Loo Zihan. The director of an acclaimed first feature, The Art of Flirting (2005), Kan had collaborated with Loo on a short called Untitled (2005), which was later developed into Solos – with Loo writing the screenplay and playing the role of “Boy” – a high-school student involved in an affair with his teacher. The film’s controversial content ran afoul of Singaporean censorship – and there are, indeed, moments of erotic nudity between two, and even three, men at some point (as the affair unravels, Boy is seeking additional excitement, and the older lover, “Man”, has to comply). Its radicalness, however, lies in the powerful balance it maintains between stylisation and emotions. Shot mainly in one of those drab, assembly-line apartment buildings that loom over Singapore, in a desaturated stock illuminated at times by a saucy touch of colour (the pink slippers of the boy’s mother), Solos eschews dialogue, focusing instead in the “empty moments” of a relationship, after or before words have been uttered, or when words would be useless. Including Boy, Man (Lim Yu-Beng, one of Singapore’s best-known actors) and Mother (veteran stage actress Goh Guat-Kian), only five bodies appear within the frame: another young boy to have sex with (Katashi) and a dancer (Chew Peishan) whose movements express the unspoken feelings of the three characters. Trapped in their desires and longings, unable to communicate, they each build a private universe, amplified by Darren Ng’s exquisite work on the soundtrack. Mother, in particular, is depicted with an harrowing mixture of repulsion and tenderness: locked in her apartment, permanently clad in a night-gown, unable to understand what is going on and afraid to loose her son, she drowns her anguish in the contemplation of household appliances. Only 70 minute long, Solos nevertheless instils a sense of insipid, colourless duration, when time becomes as heavy as sorrow, when existence is a grey tunnel, occasionally pried open by the explosion of pure desire or dark anger.

Another off-the-beaten track screening was An Evening with Jennifer Reeves, co-presented with Los Angeles Filmforum, the oldest membership-based film/video venue in Los Angeles, still one of the most vibrant spaces to experience avant-garde work, in spite of a minuscule operating budget: this was the first time to my memory that the AFI was extending a hand in this direction and acknowledged the existence of a parallel, alternative film culture. It brought to the AFI some of the most recent work of experimental filmmaker Jennifer Reeves, who has been making films since 1990; following an extraordinary series of shorts – Girls Daydream About Hollywood (1992), Chronic (1996), We Are Going Home (1998) and Darling International (1999, co-directed with M.M. Serra), among others – she completed the multiple award winning feature The Time We Killed (2004), while simultaneously exploring live and multiple-screen performances (starting with Swamp People in 2002). In spite of a few puny incursions in video, Reeves, who does not conceal her admiration for Brakhage, stands firmly on the side of those for whom the art of filmmaking involves the texture and eventual manipulation of 16mm stock (hand-painting or scratching it, optical printing techniques) – maybe a losing proposition considering the mounting costs of production and the reduction of funding for the arts, but a courageous one, that offers the dedicated spectator some precious pleasures. Structurally, Reeves has held a daring position – at the boundaries between several forms of sexuality (still a charismatic presence in gay and lesbian film festivals, she has eventually explored heterosexual romance); pushing the limit between sanity, obsessional memories, private madness and societal follies; at the intersection between psychological disorders, cultural artefacts and the process of obscuring/enlarging one’s vision and consciousness by accumulating layers of images on one strip of film. Reeves is also one of these filmmakers who work by accumulating elements of a sound and visual library – either found footage or original shots and audio recordings that will find their use later, restructured in the uncanny order of sensorial/emotional experimentation, or the semi-linear arc of a fractured narrative.

Light Work Mood Disorder

Jumping into multiple-screen multi-media performances was an almost-natural extension of her work – at least one that made sense. In February 2006 at the Dundee Contemporary Arts Festival, Reeves premiered two short films shown in double projection to the live music of composer Anthony Burr (a haunting mix of atmospheric electronics and bass clarinet solo). The program was expanded and reprised at the last Rotterdam International Film Festival, and brought to the AFI – but, as Burr couldn’t be in LA at that time, the music was “canned”. Light Work Mood Disorder constructs an elusive narrative in the mind of the viewer, as the two screens compete for attention by montaging found footage from vintage science education films with purely abstract images in spectacular, radiant colours, the film emulsion being reworked by the application of pharmaceutical substances. More tactile, sensual and emotional, He Walked Away recycles images from three of Reeves’ previous films: Configuration 20 (1994), Fear of Blushing (2001) and The Time We Killed. Reeves creates a rich, enigmatic texture of black and white and colour, superimposing images of landscapes – a black bird flying over woods in winter, ducks on the beach, flowers in close-up, a military cemetery, the grey streets of New York – with each other and with abstract-expressionist designs, opening up new spaces of vision, in which unspoken metaphors are lurking. Given the current political context, I kept seeing war explosions, interlaced with the smiling face of a young man advancing toward the camera before walking away into… Dante’s dark forest? Moody and nostalgic, the film suggests the seductive mysteries of our internal landscapes, the elusiveness of memory, the irretrievability of loss: maybe the end of a romance, the sorrows of war, or the erosion of time…

Another off-the-beaten track program was Mexican director Carlos Reygadas’ third feature, Stellet Licht (Silent Light). Reygadas had stunned and seduced international spectators with Japón in 2002, but when his second film, Batalla en el Cielo (Battle in Heaven, 2005) had a short commercial run in the US, a lot of Los Angeles film critics were downright hostile, which didn’t make sense to me, as I consider Battle a better, more sophisticated and humanly interesting work than Japón. (4) In spite of being shown in competition at Cannes, Silent Light is yet to have a US distributor. Even within the unusual career of Reygadas, Silent Light is an unexpected, original film. Gone are the protracted sex scenes involving less-than-perfect bodies and unlikely partners, or the combination of grotesque, cruel and moving elements that seemed to be his trademark. Taking his cue from Dreyer (and quoting the resurrection scene in Ordet [1943] albeit with important variations) and the tropes of ethnographic cinema, Reygadas takes his camera to a little-known Christian community, the Mexican Mennonites, established near Chihuahua since 1922. As the Mexican government gave them full religious freedom, they live outside the rest of the society, surviving through farmwork, educating their children, rejecting radio, television and telephone, dressing up in a picturesque, antiquated way (the women covering their hair, the men wearing suspenders, denim and flannel shirts) and still speaking low German (Plautdeitsch). Reygadas is still interested in what attracts, or keeps people together, the “glue” of human relationship and mutual dependency, whether this happens within established bonds (marriage, families, religious communities) or through transgression. And, once again, he demonstrates his masterful treatment of time – he knows to linger on a moment or a scene, almost to the point of discomfort. The film opens and closes on two trees standing in an open landscape. First the screen is dark, the black sky illuminated only by pale stars, and then slowly light creeps in: one can see the contours of the objects, the branches of the trees, and finally flamboyant colours at the horizon, as the orange sky is rising; the last shot is a reverse of this process.

This slowness, this quality of attention to the patient trajectory of light emerging through darkness is a metaphor for the meticulousness with which Reygadas seeps into the minds and souls of his protagonists (all played by non-professional actors) – making us guess what they think or feel rather than giving it away. Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr), a middle aged, robust farmer, happily married with Esther (Miriam Toews), has fallen in love with another woman, Marianne (Maria Pankratz), who runs a small restaurant. He finds solace by explaining his plight to fellow men in his community (“Marianne is the woman for me”) and to his own father (Peter Wall), who confesses that he went through a similar ordeal, and gave up “the other woman”, something Johan is unable to do. As telephones are banned, Marianne keeps sending friends or messengers to the farm whenever she needs to speak to Johan. Aware of the situation, Esther keeps up with her duties as a wife and mother, cooks and cleans and smiles to her husband, until her pent-up distress and anger takes a toll on her – climaxing in a harrowing scene under a pouring rain.

Silent Light

Reygadas’ reworking of the tropes of Ordet, while keeping with the spirituality of the characters, poses the question: why do women die suddenly in close-knit religious communities? – and opens it up toward the possibility of female solidarity, transcending their rivalry as “life partners” and “romantic objects” for men. As with Dreyer, an old clock marks the passing of time – but it has a different value here, connoting the community’s refusal of modern technology. And yet – in one of the most amazing sequences of the film, while the adulterous lovers are hiding in Marianne’s room, Johan’s kids pile up in the van of a good-natured American who has taken a fancy to them. And they’re watching television! Surprise: as the Mennonite clothes are timeless, we had no idea of the actual period of time. The television is black and white, and broadcasting a concert of Jacques Brel at the Olympia in 1965. Instead of fast-cutting, Reygadas allows us to watch (as the kids do) the entirety of the song (“Les Bonbons ’67”, in which Brel was ironically reworking one of his greatest hits to take into account the passing of time: the toll of the Vietnam war, and changing sexual mores). Was it a live broadcast? Or a recording? When exactly is the story taking place? Playing with our expectations, making us lose our bearings, Reygadas also forces us to confront “old-fashioned” ethical issues: is it fair for a man to cheat on the mother of his children even if true happiness is in store for him somewhere else? How can we account for the way we unwittingly hurt others?

Some of the strongest entries of the Festival came from mainland China. In three documentaries (completed in Germany) and two feature films, Li Yang has asserted himself as one of the major voices in contemporary Chinese cinema. (5) An admirer of his earlier Mang Jing (Blind Shaft, 2003), I was nevertheless a bit suspicious of his second movie, Mang Shan (Blind Mountain), depicted by the post-Cannes press as another tale of victimisation of the Chinese woman in a rural setting. Indeed, Li’s narrative structure, clearly indebted to melodrama and social-realism, is less modernist than the experiments of younger directors such as Jia Zhangke, Emily Tang, Ying Liang and Peng Shang (see my report on Vancouver), or Dao Yinan (see below). The film also resorts to a true-and-tried method to deflect censorship: locating the story in the past (in this case the 1990s) – implying that “such things don’t happen anymore.” Of course, Blind Shaft, marked as a contemporary story, was banned in China, a fate that a film represented by Studio Canal Plus and shot by one of the most sought-after Taiwanese cinematographers, Jong Lin, (6) should avoid.

Needless to say, the film is gorgeous, bringing to mind a kind of cinematic emotion that, yes, existed at the beginning of the 5th generation and was discarded in the ensuing years for different kinds of pleasure. More significantly, as soon as he enters the field of melodrama, Li seeks to deconstruct it, focusing instead on the vibrant physicality of his heroine (a great performance by Beijing Film Academy student Huang Lu). Li and Long can’t resist to design a couple of shots of an exquisitely beautiful young woman in tears, half-dressed, her hair tousled, after being ravished, but they keep these to a minimum. Bai Xuemei is a modern young woman, a college graduate who can’t find work and is lured to the Qinling Mountains (Shaanxi Province) under the pretext of making money but instead is sold as a bride to an uncouth peasant. Her plight results from the collision of two cultures, two logics: the world to which she belongs, where urban mobility morphs into rootlessness and uncertainty as well as glittering promises, where education leads to a better awareness of oneself but also to unemployment; and the traditional lifestyle of her abductors, unchanged for centuries, in which men band together to force their women will submit, and an older woman will make sure her daughter-in-law’s fate does not turn out to be better than her own, insuring the perpetuation of oppression. Xuemei’s body language is out of sync with her surroundings from the beginning – she screams, runs, fights – all to no avail, but this physical energy is a far cry from Gong Li’s picture book passivity in Zhang Yimou’s first features, in which the extent of her mobility was some erotic gestures, the extent of her transgression to have a forbidden love affair and the extent of her agency to have a man kill somebody for her. (In Da hongdenglong gaogao gua [Raise the Red Lantern, 1991], Gong Li is supposed to be a former college student, but there is no evidence of this in the way she behaves in the film. Xueimei’s stubbornness and single-mindedness make her more similar to Qiu Jiu.)

Blind Mountain

In her loneliness, Xuemei gets involved in a secret affair, but, in spite of flickers of passion and even tenderness, there is nothing romantic about this, as the man, no chivalrous hero, proves to be part and parcel of the system that conspires against the young woman. Xuemei goes further, offering her body to a lecherous neighbour, to have the money needed to hitch a ride to the city. At the end, when she performs her act of ultimate revolt, spectators were cheering in the auditorium, proof of the film’s efficiency. While knowing Li’s fondness for ambiguous endings (such as the enigmatic last shot of Blind Shaft), I felt nonetheless short-changed, as I did with Born on the Fourth of July (1989) when the paraplegic veteran finally gets on stage to give a political speech – that we don’t get to hear, as Oliver Stone ends the film before giving the floor to his protagonist. What happened to Bai Xuemei after she fought for her freedom? After the mob violence we had witnessed in the previous scenes, so extreme that the city policemen felt helpless and left in fear, the most likely outcome would be for the heroine and her father to be lynched by the villagers. I understand censorship will never allow this to be shown. So Blind Mountain left me restless and pondering, conflicted and in doubt, which is probably what Li Yang was hoping for.

With Ye Che (Night Train), Diao Yinan’s second feature after Zhifu (Uniform, 2003), we are still in Shaanxi province, but in an urban, industrial environment, and resolutely in the 21st century. For most contemporary city women, even in China, the problem is not so much that men want to kidnap us, ravish us, lock us up and keep us pregnant and barefoot, but that, confronted with the enormous societal changes affecting gender roles, a number of them would rather watch a ball game than have sex, won’t commit to a relationship, secretly dream of being supported but feel belittled by professional women, buy money order brides or chase nymphets but balk at the idea of dating somebody their equal. So, a number of eligible women are left high and dry, and go to extreme lengths in their search for romance – creating a new market and filling the files of dating services. Having collaborated on the screenplays of Zhang Yang’s Ai qing ma la tang (Spicy Love Soup, 1997) and Xizao (Shower, 1999), Diao is no stranger to the emotional idiosyncrasies of his fellow Chinese, and exhibits a vein of dark humour when expounding them. As a director, he has developed a striking visual style, capturing abstract post-socialist spaces shot in muted shades of grey, black and blue, as mirrors for the unexpressed sadness of his characters. Night Train’s heroine, Wu Hongyan (Liu Dan), an attractive, thirtysomething widow, is one of these ordinary women who, living alone, takes, once a week, a night train to the Good Luck Matchmaking dances in a nearby town, and ends up with a string of comically bad dates…

Liu’s perfectly tuned performance suggests the simmering of loneliness, passion and anger, followed by the overwhelming rush of desire – all of this, however, in a larger, darker societal context. For Hongyan has an extraordinary job – and it is no wonder that the film is an independent/underground production, with French and US money, for China is not proud of being the country with the largest number of executions in the world… She is a court baillif and, when a woman is executed, has to perform the deed herself. From the onset, the film exposes the swiftness with which capital punishment is dispensed in China: a frightened young woman, lured into prostitution by a pimp, stands trial for having killed him while resisting his unwanted advances. Upon hearing her death sentence, she collapses in Hongyan’s arms. In the court hallway, she is bodily attacked by the relatives of her victim. Later, she cries at the thought of leaving her baby boy behind. As it will be revealed later, she was a married woman, very much loved by her husband; the matter of prostitution never comes back into the story, as if it was taken for granted that poor women, married or not, may have to do unpleasant things to survive.

The sentence is carried soon afterwards, and Diao’s stark mise en scène of the event, focusing on details (the ritual words, the hood placed on the condemned’s head, the white latex gloves put on to carry the lethal gun and discarded after the shot is fired) suggests a sober compassion, a quiet protest against the dehumanising process. In a subsequent sequence, he shows Hongyan and a group of court workers negotiating with villagers to find a new execution ground. Death is a job, an industry like any other.

Night Train

Not so for Li Jun (Qi Dao), a young labourer who, while at work in a metal smelting plant, receives the news of his wife’s execution. Here also, large layers of the plot are left unexplained – such as the reasons for the man’s estrangement from his former in-laws, who call him a loser and decide to keep his infant son with them. Struck by his distress, his boss offers to transfer him to a job, as the guardian of a remote dam. However, he starts stalking Hongyan, whom he has identified as his wife’s executioner. She comes to visit him at the dam; sex happens, sparks fly – but then Hongyan realises that Jun intends to kill her… Tony Rayns reads the film as “one of the frankest Chinese movies ever made about sexual desire – and about the masochism of guilt and submission.” (7) I am not sure that masochism is the key to understanding Hongyan’s change of heart when she decides to get on the boat with Jun and his knives. As she was, in the previous sequence, about to leave and return to the city, she witnessed a strange occurrence that, mutatis mutandis, reminded me of the “dog-under-the-cart” scene in Buñuel’s Viridiana (1961): an instance of acute, absurd cruelty (a horse who had collapsed while drawing a cart is mercilessly beaten and can’t get up). In Buñuel’s film, Viridiana goes to her cousin’s room; in Night Train, Hongyan gets on the boat – and she may not necessarily sail across the Styx, but finally takes the risk of getting what she wants, and journeys on uncharted waters.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, AFM attendees were complaining that this was one of the slowest markets they remembered, as buyers and sellers were afraid to make decisions, under the threat of a writers strike (the strike did happen, is still going on in January 2008, and may cost the industry millions, if not billions, of dollars). The usual suspects, however, were present (but they were less “busy” than usual, so you could actually have a decent conversation for a change) – about 400 production and distribution companies from all over the world were exhibiting their products or services, the market was filled to capacity for the fourth time in a row, and more than 500 movies were screened – including commercial fares about to hit the US market, such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth, Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and Brian de Palma’s Redacted. There was the usual flurry of horror films and auteur indies, one of my favourites, in addition to the provocative Zoo (which I reviewed in my piece on the Sundance Film Festival last year), being a little orphan film, What We Do Is Secret. A labour of love by first-time director Rodger Grossman, it empathically delves into the birth of a punk scene in late 1970s Los Angeles, with the rise and fall of its most famous band, The Germs. At the age of 22, its charismatic, self-destructive leader Darby Crash (played convincingly by Shane West) committed suicide by overdose on December 7, 1980, the day before John Lennon was killed (an irony underlined by Grossman: what a way to be fucked by history!).

It was also refreshing to note the presence of two of the first-completed features of a the “Yunnan New Film Project” launched by the Beijing-based film producer known as LOLA, in which she invited ten young women from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan (some of them first-time directors) to make a film in Yunnan. Wang Fen’s Xiang Zi (The Case) cast the underappreciated actor Wu Gang as a middle-aged man caught in an unimaginative marriage with a bed-and-breakfast owner. Adventure and horror arrive in the form of a suitcase filled with human remains, and a beautiful woman married to Jia Zhangke’s fetish actor Wang Hongwei. More melancholy is Gongyuan (The Park) by Yin Lichuan, a poet, about a widowed father trying to marry off his independently-minded daughter and meeting other seniors in the park. Other notable mainland Chinese films included Jiang Wen’s Tai yang zhao chang sheng qi (The Sun Also Rises – represented by Emperor Pictures in Hong Kong), Alex Tan’s Tien Tang Kou (Blood Brothers – produced by John Woo’s company and distributed by Fortissimo) and the always-prolific Feng Xiaogang’s first (and dark) foray into the war film genre, Ji Jie Hao (The Assembly – produced by the Huayi Brothers, Beijing’s biggest private film studio). All these films have been premiered a major film festivals and will probably appear in a lot of international venues.

To conclude these remarks, I would like to focus on a small event: the AFM screening of two short films for children, directed in the 1950s by French director Albert Lamorisse: Crin Blanc (White Mane, 1953) and Le Ballon Rouge (The Red Balloon, 1956). The recipients of many awards (a Palme d’Or at Cannes and an Oscar for Le Ballon Rouge) and much praised by the critics, then eventually shown on French television in 1959, the films, in spite of their legendary status, had disappeared. I, for one, had never seen them. And then, as it becomes more and more difficult to finance films in Taiwan, the Musée d’Orsay offered Hou Hsiao-hsien the chance to produce his first film in France – a major but not impossible leap for an Asian director (as proven by the highly successful completion of Suwa Nobuhiro’s Un Couple parfait, 2005). For the first time, Hou would work with a French writer (producer François Margolin) rather than his faithful collaborator/ screenwriter, Chu Tien-wen. Hou accepted the offer and started to do research on French cinema, which led to his discovery and screening of Le Ballon Rouge. [To me], says Hou, “it showed certain realities of Paris in 1956… the various constraints surrounding the kid… but a sense of the new, post-war freedom around him.” (8) Taking this as a starting point, Hou wove a story on the interaction between a little boy (Simon Iteanu), a red balloon that may or may not follow him, his overworked single mother, Suzanne (a marvellous Juliette Binoche), and the Beijing Film Academy student (Song Fang) (9) who takes care of him. Instinctively following Suwa Nohiburo’s example, he wrote a detailed screenplay, scene by scene, and orchestrated the background history of each character, but asked the actors to improvise their own lines – a new experience for Binoche who eventually turns one of her best performances, and becomes one of Hou’s most credible femmes.

The Flight of the Red Balloon

Like the hidden magic in the original Ballon Rouge, the drab realities of life are not all there is to see. Each of the characters is opening new vistas through art or imagination. Young Simon uses the red balloon as a way to dream; Suzanne is a puppeteer (another familiar trope in Hou’s work) who is staging a spectacle derived from a Yuan Dynasty play, the story of Zhang Yu, who wants to boil the ocean to retrieve his beloved. She rehearses in some garage with a group of young artists, and has the privilege of hosting and welcoming a Master Puppeteer from China. Meanwhile Song Fang is working on a remake of Lamorisse’s film and helps Suzanne to transfer old 8mm family film into a more contemporary support. Working in ten minute long unrehearsed takes shot in natural light by Mark Lee Ping Bing, maybe the greatest Taiwanese DP, (10) Hou endows each of his characters with grace, lightness and unpredictability (it’s a sheer pleasure to watch Suzanne move, or Song Fang discover a new neighbourhood in Paris), and turns each location into a magic stage, with luminous references to Matisse and the Impressionists.

Never a “character” like in the original film, the red balloon’s elusive presence (sometimes it is nothing more than a painting on a wall) becomes a symbol of the fluidity that presides at the exchange between the protagonists, between two cultures (French and Chinese) and between generations. Outwardly, Suzanne’s life is a mess. She has two children from two different fathers who are no longer part of her life. She vainly hopes that her oldest daughter, Louise, who lives in Brussels, will move back to study in Paris. She sublets part of her apartment to a supposed friend who no longer pays rent and is rude to her. She loves her little boy but has no time for him. And yet, like Zhang Yu, she is redeemed, magnified by her very stubbornness. Le Voyage du ballon rouge (The Flight of the Red Balloon) makes you share simple pleasures like a Chinese student learning how to make French crepes in a small and cluttered Parisian kitchen, a boy practicing scales on a vintage piano, or a mother coming back home late and hurried to realise that everything is fine, they’re just happy to see her.

The buzz generated by the completion of Hou’s film, shown at Cannes and a number of film festivals including the AFI, triggered a renewal of interest for Lamorisse, who had died in a helicopter crash while making a film in Iran in 1970. The original production company had folded, but Films Distribution acquired the rights, and started to show them around the world. And so Crin Blanc and Le Ballon Rouge were shown back to back at the Market – while being acquired by Janus Films in the US (and Madman Entertainment in Australia). Entering the world of Lamorisse is an unforgettable experience, which I wish upon every spectator, grown-up and child. Both films are centred around the friendship between a little boy and his special companion, and Lamorisse had an uncanny understanding of how children create alternative realities. Shot in black and white in the breathtaking location of Camargue, where the Rhône estuary opens up to the Mediterranean, Crin Blanc is the story of a wild stallion who roams freely through the swamps, the leader of his herd. He keeps thwarting the attempts of guardians to capture him, and becomes close with the little fisherman Folco, who lives in a shack with his grandfather and baby sister. Finally, pursued by the guardians, Crin Blanc jumps into the sea with Folco on his back, swimming to a place “where boys and horses can be free together.”

White Mane

Lamorisse switched to colour with The Red Balloon, shot in a working-class neighbourhood of Paris. Raised by an unsympathetic grandmother, a schoolboy befriends a balloon that keeps following him. The film is less lyrical, but also more droll than Crin Blanc, articulating a string of little vignettes showing Parisians dumbfounded at the antics of the whimsical floating object. Then the balloon is kidnapped and punctured by a gang of jealous boys; as the young protagonist cries on the flattened remnants of his friend, all the balloons of Paris escape, surround him, and then take him away in the air, presumably to a place where boys and balloons can be free together. Always the gentleman, Lamorisse, who had cast his son, Pascal, in the main part, gave a special thank you credit to “the balloons of Paris”.

In spite of small surprises like this one, the main focus of both the AFI and the AFM continues to be the promotion and distribution of “commercially viable” cinema. Yet, even in this context, some openings are possible. Paraphrasing Cage, and while bemoaning the current international situation, a friend, an avant-garde artist, wrote to me, in a Happy New Year message, that “we must keep hoping and doing small things for change.” I see the flight of a red balloon over the roofs of Paris as this fragile harbinger of hope for change.

AFI Fest website: http://www.afi.com/onscreen/AFIFEST/2007/
American Film Market website: http://www.ifta-online.org/afm/

Endnotes

  1. A former longshoreman and published novelist, Ousmane Sembène started to make films in his 40s. Selected filmography: Borom Sarret (1963), La Noire de… (Black Girl, 1966), Mandabi (1968), Emitai (God of Thunder, 1971), Xala (1975), Ceddo (1977), Camp de Thiaroye (1988), Guelwaar (1993) and Moolaadé (2004). The Festival was showing his luminous feminist parable, Faat Kiné (2000).
  2. Selected filmography: Haitan De Yi Tian (That Day, On the Beach, 1983/4), Qingmei Zhuma (Taipei Story, 1985), Guling Jie Shaonian Sha Ren Shijian (A Brighter Summer Day, 1991), Duli Shidai (A Confucian Confusion, 1994), Maijiang (Mahjong, 1996), and Yi Yi (A One and a Two, 2000, Best Director Award at Cannes, and the only one of his films to have commercial distribution in the West.) – See Saul Austerlitz, “Edward Yang”, Senses of Cinema, Great Directors.
  3. After moving to the United States in 1957, Kovács shot, among many others, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970), Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1973), Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977) and Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters (1984). The festival was showing, on video, the last film he shot (and executive produced), Endre Hules and Klaudia Kovács’s A Lyukas Zaszlo (Torn from the Flag, 2007).
  4. Senses of Cinema No 39, April-June 2006.
  5. See Stephen Teo, “‘There Is No Sixth Generation!’ Director Li Yang on Blind Shaft and His Place in Chinese Cinema”, Senses of Cinema Issue 27, 2003.
  6. NYU graduate Jong Lin shot a number of Ang Lee’s films, starting with his first indie production, Pushing Hands (1991); he also worked with Indian British director Gurinder Chahah, most notably on Bend It Like Beckham (2002) and received a cinematography award for his work on Zhang Yang’s Xiang Ri Kui (Sunflower, 2005). He has also lent his talents to lesser-known independent Chinese directors, and, more importantly, has worked on all the films of 5th Generation director Peng Xiaolian since she returned to Shanghai in the late 1990s after her post-June 4th exile in the US – such as the award-winning documentary Manzan Benigaki (Red Persimmons, 2001, co-directed with Shinsuke Ogawa) or her trilogy on Shanghai’s recent history, started with Jiazhuang Mei Ganjue (Shanghai Women, 2002).
  7. BFI 51st London Film Festival, retrieved on-line: http://www.bfi.org.uk/whatson/lff/node/2418/more.
  8. From an interview by Tony Rayns, conducted at Spot Cinema in Taipei in March 2007, translated by Chang ChuTi – retrieved January 2008 at http://www.cinaoggi.it/cinema/cannes-07/Flight%20of%20the%20red%20balloon/
  9. Many synopses of the film describe Song Fang as a “Taiwanese student”. The French dialogue is pretty clear – as well as the interview quoted above: “I met Song Fang at the Pusan Film Festival… I talked with her and found she spoke fluent French; she’d spent years in Brussels and Paris, and was then studying at Beijing Film Academy. Meeting her inspired the character she plays, who is not untypical of Mainland Chinese in France. Plenty of Taiwanese students go to France to study, but hardly any of them work as child-minders. On the other hand, lots of Mainlanders do.”
  10. In addition to shooting the majority of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films since Tong nien wang shi (A Time to Live, a Time to Die, 1985) Mark Lee Ping Bing has worked with Ann Hui (Nu ren si shi/Summer Snow, 1985), Anh Hung Tran (A la verticale de l’été/The Vertical Ray of the Sun, 2000), Wong Kar-wai (Fa yeung nin wa/In The Mood for Love, 2000), Wang Shau-di, Sylvia Chang, Tian Zhuangzhuang (Xiao cheng zhi chun/Springtime in a Small Town, 2002), Xu Jinglei (Yi ge mo sheng nu ren de lai xin/Letter from an Unknown Woman, 2004), Patrick Tam (Fu zi/After This Our Exile, 2006) and Jiang Wen (The Sun Also Rises, 2007).