I saw this in the cosy and comfortable seating of the Old Town Hall, Gateshead – the temporary home of Tyneside Cinema – at the end of a very hard day. As a result, I found it hard to concentrate on a film which requires proper attention. But I struggled on with determination because the film had been recommended. I’m glad I did because I enjoyed the experience – although at the end I wasn’t sure I’d understood everything. Fortunately, a group of young Chinese behind me were talking after the screening and I picked up some ideas and later I trawled a few websites. Gradually it started to make sense.
There isn’t a lot of plot. A single mother, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) lives in a two story apartment in Paris with her young son. She advertises for a childminder so that she can work as the narrator on a Chinese puppet show. The childminder turns out to be a film student from Beijing, the quiet and implacable Song, who seems to be creating her own version of the classic children’s film Le ballon rouge (France 1956). Song helps Suzanne with some translating and also with the transfer of some home movies to a digital format. Other than that there are some journeys around Paris and Suzanne falls out with her lodger, an old friend of her (estranged ?) husband’s who lives in the downstairs rooms.
I guess what kept my interest was the contrast between the quiet Song and her charge, Simon, and the much noisier Suzanne and also a sense of mystery about exactly what was going on. There was a very slight sense of the menace of Hidden in the scenes both in the apartment and around Paris. Does the boy actually see a red balloon? Is it following him? I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen the original film — perhaps it has some of this mystery?
Because it is directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien, a disciple of Ozu Yasujiro, the film invites the audience to spot Ozu traits. I can report that there are several train trips which I enjoyed and that it is possible to summon up some Ozu-like compositions in the tiny apartment. Unlike the minimalist style of Japanese interiors, however, Suzanne’s apartment is cluttered and cramped with piles of books and eventually the piano from downstairs. Most of the time the camera remains static, focused on the table which seems to be at the centre of the life of the room. After a while, I began to think about Michael Snow’s famous avant-garde film Wavelength (in which the camera very slowly zooms/tracks in towards a photograph on the wall of a warehouse floor). I became fascinated with the detail of the room and the small movements of characters in it.
I’ve looked at several websites and blogs on the film and they point towards other familiar traits from Hou such as the cultural differences between China and France — the Chinese film student attempts to recreate a French film, the French actor narrates a Chinese puppet play etc. There is also a sense of history with the past (the original film, the family’s history on film) bleeding into the present. Many critics and audiences have apparently been bored rigid and some are outraged by being seduced into seeing an ‘art film’ like this. I found it restful and intriguing.