Tagged: Hou Hsiao-hsien

The Assassin (Nie yin niang, France-Taiwan-China-HK 2015)

The_Assassin_2015_720p_x264_IranFilm_com

This film was screened several times in the Official Section at Leeds International Film Festival. The director, Hou Hsiao-hsien won the Best Director Award at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. This is a stunningly beautiful film. Note it opens in black and white and then changes to colour. And whilst the bulk of the film is in Academy ratio [1.37:1], there are two sequences (of only two shots each) in widescreen ratio [1.85:1] .

If you know the earlier films of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Three Times (2005) Zui hao de shi guang or The Puppetmaster (1993) Xi meng ren sheng, you will know what to expect. Some of the audience in the Victoria [Room at Leeds Town Hall] presumably were excepting a typical martial arts film: they left early. The UK marketing uses the martial arts genre in the publicity, which is a mistake. Apparently similar marketing and responses took place when the film received a mainstream release in China. This is a slow, artful film with a fairly opaque plotline: it has parallels in terms of plot with Hero (Ying xiong 2002). Moreover, for a western audience, I think it takes some time to identify the separate characters, especially when for much of the time they wear the formal clothing of the period. In addition the film moves around in different time periods, but without the usual signing of flashbacks.

How well you manage depends on the manner in which you view films. One friend managed most of the characters and plot at his first screening: impressive. I managed the basic characters and plot at my first screening but it was only the second time round that I followed the whole coherently. Another friend was a neither informed or impressed: and his complaint was about the paucity of subtitle information in English and the difficulties produced in identifying characters in the numerous long shots.

Rather than describe the plot, the main point of which is relatively simple, it may help to describe those I believe to be the main characters: (based on the descriptions on Wikipedia).

Shu Qi as Nie Yinniang, the eponymous assassin

Chang Chen as Tian Ji’an, cousin to Nie Yinniang, formerly betrothed to her, and military governor (Jiedushi), ruling Weibo Circuit.

Zhou Yun as Lady Tian, Tian Ji’an’s wife. (Belongs to family of a separate Provincial ruler.)

Satoshi Tsumabuki as the mirror polisher. (Unidentified by name, the character’s title action is easy to miss: he appears late in the film when there is an attack in woods and he comes to the rescue.)

Ethan Juan as Xia Jing, Tian Ji’an’s bodyguard

Hsieh Hsin-Ying as Huji ( her name means ‘orchid’), Tian Ji’an’s concubine and a dancer

Ni Dahong as Nie Feng, Nie Yinniang’s father and Tian Ji’an’s provost

Yong Mei as Nie Tian

Fang-Yi Sheu as Princess Jiacheng and her twin sister, the princess Jiaxin turned Taoist nun

And there is an older whiskered character who I believe is Jacques Picoux  as Lady Tian’s teacher: he appears twice sitting in his study.

The opening segment of the film is in black and white Academy. This is a prelude to the main story and we meet two key characters; Yinniang and Jiaxin. Then the film changes to Academy colour. The setting in Weibo and the main characters here are carefully introduced. Whilst the plot deals mainly with a series of actions involving these characters, the context is tensions between the Imperial Court and provinces on the periphery, like Weibo, and who will exercise power. But there is also personal conflict, partly motivated by personal experiences from the past, and partly motivated by the power conflicts at the court and, from a distance, Imperial / provincial relations. The two sequences in New Academy seem to be a suggestion on a central metaphor of the film. We see a zither, an instrument that recurs the last time that we see Jiaxin, perhaps a confirmation of this.

For me the film holds ones attention completely: it was  a pleasure to watch it twice. It has an immaculate mise en scène and a distinctive sound track. There are few of the action sequences beloved in martial art films. But there are many formal settings where what is left unsaid seems as potent as what is said. And there are also informal settings of personal interaction, but never really informal. The film uses decor, mirrors, light and shadow, candles and lanterns, gauzes and even smoke to offer settings with subtle variations. If the interiors tend to the strictly formal, there is something of the same sense in the exteriors, which are also beautifully captured.

assassin

One must pay compliments to the production team working under the director.

Music by  Giong Lim

Cinematography by Ping Bin Lee

Film Editing by Chih-Chia Huang  . . . (edited by)

Ching-Song Liao . . . (as Liao Ching-Sung) (editing director)

Production Design by   Wen-Ying Huang

Costume Design by   Wen-Ying Huang . . . (as Hwarng Wern-Ying)

Sound Department   Shih Yi Chu . . . sound, Duu-Chih Tu . . . sound, Shu-yao Wu . . . sound

Special Effects by  Ardi Lee . . . special effects

The camera work relies to a degree on long shots and fairly long takes. In both interiors and exteriors there is both deep focus and deep staging: there are lovely moments when an outline or a shadow emerges in deep field. The camera movements are varied but the most common are slow and slight dollies, with slow pans and tilts in interiors. And there are some fine tracking shots in the exteriors.

The editing is often elliptical, which can make for difficulties in following the developments, but this enables the film to draw the parallels between the complex interactions among characters. The soundtrack is also a treat. The music is sparse but very evocative. There is the slow playing  of drums and percussion. There is zither music. And, over the end credits, some exhilarating music from flutes or bagpipes. But for much of the time we enjoy natural sound, including bird songs and cicadas.

And the production design is truly impressive. One review thought the film was ‘too pretty’. In fact, it is ornate, as it would seem were the Chinese courts of the period. The settings, especially the interiors, provide a great canvas for the cinematography.

Hou immersed himself in reading and research for the film. In quotes in the Festival Catalogue he notes the subtlety and complexity of the period.

“For example, there were different ways of taking a bath, depending on whether you were a wealthy merchant, a high official or a peasant. I also looked into the story’s political context in some detail. It was a chaotic period when the omnipotence of the Tang Court was threatened by provincial governors who challenged the authority of the Tang Emperor: some provinces even tried to secede from the Empire by force.”

We actually see the preparations for a royal bath. Reviews have tended to praise the style of the film, but some also express reservations about the plotting of the story and even the sheer physical attraction of the settings right through them film. The film though, focuses on a particular social segment, one with great wealth and privilege. And we only see the peasants mentioned by Hou briefly, though in an important sequence.

The film was shot on Kodak 35mm and has been transferred to DCP via 4K. However, I think most audiences in the UK will only be able to see it in 2K. Even so it does look and sound good. It runs for 107 minutes and crams a lot into that space.

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LFF 2012 #1: Memories Look at Me (China 2012)

Song Fang and her mother in Memories Look at Me

Memories Look at Me was a good place to start my visit to the 2012 London Film Festival. Writer-director Song Fang is known to arthouse audiences in the West as the young Chinese film student who appears in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Paris-set Flight of the Red Balloon (France/Taiwan 2007). In this, her first feature, she has Jia Zhangke as executive producer. With two of the leading masters of Chinese cinema as mentors, it isn’t surprising that she has absorbed something from both filmmakers and that this feature seems so confident and composed. Inhabiting that territory between fiction and documentary that features in much of Jia’s work, Memories Look at Me is a meditation on growing up and growing old – and also a critique in many ways of the changing China and, in particular, the one child policy.

Song plays a character like herself, on a visit home to her parents’ small flat in Nanjing. Her real family play themselves (though, presumably, as fictional characters). Almost all the ‘action’ takes place in the flat and this, for me, was the only disappointment in that I would have liked to see more of Nanjing. It was frustrating to be peering through the rain-spattered windows of a car and to be told that a decaying building was the cinema where Song’s parents often went, only for her doctor father to receive an emergency call part way through the film. But then, the film deals with the interior lives of the family members and what they remember as they talk in the confined space of the house.

The film is almost an exercise in restraint and it works very well in allowing us to begin to understand the characters and their circumstances. There are relatively few moments of real drama such as when a neighbour brings the family a chicken which seems then to be kept temporarily in the shower room. Song proves inept at securing the chicken’s legs and we see no more of the bird. I presume that somebody must kill it so that they can eat it?

There are several references to Song as an unmarried woman who has passed 30 and I confess that it might have been interesting to see how she got on with the blind date that her brother and sister-in-law were keen to arrange for her. But this is one of the moments of restraint – nothing more is heard of the idea. The ‘one child’ policy crops up several times, e.g. when Fang asks her mother why she seemed so old when Fang was a child and her mother explains that she was five years older than the other mothers in Nanjing because she had already had Fang’s brother – and all the other mothers only had the one child. Fang’s uncle had no children and so Fang’s brother was important to him and later Fang visits her parents’ friends who are worried about the health of their only child.

I think it is remarkable that a woman in her early 30s should make such a mature film about getting older and realising that you have simply not taken in the import of the things that have happened to your parents’ generation. I wish that I had been that aware and mature at her tender age. Not a film I would recommend for a rollicking Friday night out, but definitely one to savour at a more sober time of the week. I hope this gets a wide distribution.

Café Lumière (Kôhî jikô, Japan-Taiwan 2003)

Yoko and Hajime (centre) on one of several train journeys.

I had somehow gained the impression that this was not going to be the best of director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s recent work, but enjoyed it a great deal. Certainly, if I hadn’t seen Millennium Mambo (2001) and Le voyage du ballon rouge (2007) I would have found it more difficult. As it was, I was prepared to go along with its gentle narrative flow and just observe a new, but still East Asian, perspective on the life of Tokyo’s suburbs, coffee shops and railway systems. The railways are the giveaway clue and this is a film commissioned by the Japanese studio Shochiku to commemorate the centenary of their famous director Ozu Yasujiro in 2003. I take the title to be a play on words evoking film history and the coffee shop (what would have been a bar in Ozu’s Tokyo) which forms the alternative setting to the railway.

The central character in the narrative is Yoko, a young writer from Tokyo who is researching a Taiwanese musician/artist from the 1930s (Jiang Wen-Ye (1910 – 1983). She has just arrived back from Taiwan and she spends time with her parents who still live in Takasaki, a city in Central Japan 100km away by rail. Later she meets up with her friend Hajime, a bookseller in Tokyo with a railways obsession. There is very little plot but part way through the narrative Yoko reveals that she is pregnant.

I’ve read a lot of comments about the film and what many of them miss is that although Hou’s film is undoubtedly an art film, Ozu produced mainstream entertainment, albeit for what I assume to be an upmarket audience. This is an important point because although loving Ozu marks anyone out as a cinephile today, in the 1950s and 1960s he would be a ‘popular’ director. Hou, however, is definitely for cinephiles. However, Hou knows how to sell a film. In his earlier career when he was a leader of Taiwanese New Cinema, he invariably cast non-professionals. Here he casts Yo Hitoto, a Japanese pop singer in her first acting role, as Yoko. Hajime is played (in very relaxed style) by one of Japanese cinema’s leading stars, Asano Tadanobu.

This is the ‘real’ railway shot that Mark Lee frames (more poetically) but even in this Creative Commons photo from Wikipedia it looks magical.

Café Lumière is a very easy film to watch, but arguably a difficult film to read. Mark Lee’s camera frames characters in careful, often static, compositions in Hou’s usual recent style – i.e. through doorways or windows, down corridors, round corners etc. Outside the houses and coffee shops it offers us long takes in long shot, observing the world and Yoko’s journey through it. The shots of trains and trams are beautiful. One shot of a minute or so shows a scene in Tokyo with three railway lines at different levels crossing over each other – and across a river. It’s as if we are looking into a model railway layout or watching a scene from an anime. I love trains but I can understand that for many they are not particularly interesting. And this is what makes the film problematic for a mainstream audience. Comments on the film complain about particular scenes, why are they doing this or that? There is a desire for narrative, a need to be told something, for actions to be in a chain of cause and effect – for the story to mean something in the way that David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson argue constitutes a typical Hollywood narrative. But this story doesn’t have an ending, it doesn’t really have a direction. What we see instead is a family and a relationship between friends. In many ways this is a ‘realist’ film par excellence since it corresponds to the ways many of us live our lives – we don’t lurch from one dramatic crisis to the next, sometimes what we aim to do isn’t achieved, we can’t think of things to say, we’d rather just stare out of the window.

Café Lumière could be described as a postmodern narrative, one in which references are made to other ‘texts’ on several levels. The situation of the unmarried daughter and her parents’ concern features in both Ozu’s Late Spring (1949) and Early Summer (1951) and one scene is very close to that in Tokyo Story (1953) when the parents visit their widowed daughter-in-law who has to borrow something from a neighbour in order to offer them hospitality. Hou doesn’t attempt to copy Ozu’s compositions directly but he achieves something of the same tone. The obsession with Tokyo’s railways emerges not just through Hajime’s actions as a character but also the camera’s seeming obsession in almost fetishising train images as if exaggerating Ozu’s occasional glimpses of trains simply for effect. Yet railways also act as triggers for memory – Yoko spots the station cat which she remembers from her childhood in Takasaki when she took the child to school. It’s also interesting that she lives on a tram route in Tokyo, one of the last two remaining from Ozu’s Tokyo. None of these references will mean much to audiences unaware of either Ozu or Taiwanese-Japanese history but this is the nature of film art for a cinephile audience.

The little details that emerge about the Taiwanese boyfriend and from Yoko’s meeting with Jiang Ewn-Ye’s widow and daughter point to a ‘discourse’ about a personal and cultural history that brings together China, Taiwan and Japan over the last century and which is mirrored in the histories of the film industries in these countries (and which also involves Hong Kong).

Hou is now in his 60s but still wishes to represent a younger generation – even when it is via the incomprehension of their parents. Fortunately, for me, the occasional musical accompaniment, which I think refers to the composer who Yoko is researching, was much easier on the ear than the techno of Millennium Mambo.

Millennium Mambo (France/Taiwan 2001)

Vicki and Hao-hao. Note the colour palette with the 'glowing' white bra and the shallow focus.

I first got interested in the ‘New Taiwanese Cinema’ director Hou Hsiao-hsien back in the 1980s when he was making films that explored the recent political history of the island through a series of family melodramas. I remember taking a friend to the NFT to see a new film by Hou in the London Film Festival. I think it must have been Daughter of the Nile (1987) which tells a tale about young people in Taipei. I remember that my friend was not impressed and I found it difficult to defend the film. I thought about that experience again when I saw Millennium Mambo. I realise now that I was unprepared for Daughter of the Nile which in some way was a precursor of Millennium Mambo.

As the title suggests, this is a film set around the millennium, told by a young woman from ten years in the future so it’s a bit weird to watch it now. There is little plot. Vicki (Shi Qi) is a stunningly beautiful young woman who appears to have drifted into a slacker mode living with her boyfriend Hao-Hao in Taipei. They fall out and she has a relationship with Jack, an older man who is some kind of criminal, works in a bar as a hostess and at one point travels to Hokkaido with two brothers who have a Japanese mother.

The film has four formal elements that are perhaps more important than the narrative content itself. Firstly, the experience of watching the film is ‘disturbed’ and perhaps made more dream-like, through a dislocation of the voiceover and the image track. The narrator tells us about events which are not on screen at that moment but which will appear some time later. This sense of confusion is compounded by a camera that is fixed much of the time and peers into the couple’s apartment, into bars and restaurants etc. so that much of the ‘action’ is in long shot unless characters move up close to the camera. Further confusion comes from the deliberate lack of focus at the start of some scenes so that the screen shows only shimmering colours which move behind a distorting lens. Even within scenes, the field of focus is so shallow that characters seem trapped in a woozy environment.

The shimmering colours are also present through deliberate design of costumes, lighting and interior decor. The camera shoots through flimsy curtains, hanging mobiles of reds and greens and blues, window frames and doorways. Vicky wears bright reds or white. The lighting in clubs and bars (and seemingly the apartment) uses ultraviolet (?) so that, for instance, Vicky wears a white bra or tee-shirt that literally glows in the dim surroundings. Finally, running throughout much of the film is a music track of ambient/techno music, mainly by Lim Giong. As you can tell, this isn’t my scene and I don’t know quite how to describe it!

This clip from the opening of the film demonstrates the hypnotic quality of the camerawork, setting, voiceover and music:

We do learn a little about Vicky’s past – she and Hao-hao came to Taipei from Keelung – and Vicky makes a second visit to Japan when Jack travels there attempting to solve a problem in his criminal activities. The Japanese sequences are visually different, mainly because the camera strays outside onto the streets (and peers at the rushing trains – an Ozu moment perhaps?). The town in Hokkaido is holding a film festival and there are many beautiful posters of classic and not-so-classic films (Jean Gabin v. Charles Bronson?). In Taiwan all the ‘action’ is claustrophobic and every shot is of an interior – or perhaps the balcony of the apartment.

I guess that Hou’s films are the ultimate test of cinephilia. Whereas in his earlier historical melodramas there was something for the average art cinema fan to chew on, in these films the pleasures on offer are limited to formal questions and teases about questions of narration and narrativity. The film seems to be a challenge to viewers. Does it have a metaphorical purpose? I’m not sure. (Hou himself has commented that young people, especially young women, seem to live their lives much faster now. Perhaps the film is a reflection on time – as the young woman sees it?)  At times I was bored and frustrated and then angry with the abusive Hao-hao. Vicky is a seductive creation (seemingly on the verge of smoking herself to death) and I probably enjoyed the scenes with Jack the most, although the trips to Japan were also inviting. Shi Qi is undoubtedly a star (she also appears in Hou’s later film, Three Times) and I was interested to find out more about her from various fansites (such as shuqi.org). I hadn’t realised that she started in soft porn modelling and films in Hong Kong and that at one point she was in the running for the role in Crouching Tiger that went to Zhang Ziyi. I hope she gets challenging roles in the future.

I think that I would like to show this film to film students in order to discuss how Hou creates its hypnotic feel combining music, images and editing. The cinematography is by Mark Lee (aka Lee Pin-bing) whose work I now realise I have seen several times before (and look forward to on several upcoming movies). All the time in Millennium Mambo I was thinking about Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels (HK 1996) which shares not only elements of the visual style, but also allusions to youth culture and criminality. I notice now that Mark Lee was an assistant to Chris Doyle on that shoot and that he later shot Wong’s In the Mood For Love. There is an interesting blog on the audio work in Millennium Mambo here.

The comparison with Wong Kar-wai is interesting. Wong’s films are for me more entertaining and Hong Kong is a more familiar milieu. Hou seems more for cinephiles in some of the films. However, I’ve got a couple more of Hou’s films to view in the next few months and I’m aware of the cult status that Millennium Mambo seems to be developing from the YouTube comments. You can follow our other Hou entries via this tag.

Three Times / Zuihaode shiguang

A Time for Love

A Time for Love

France/Taiwan 2005

Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien

With Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Di Mei Certificate 12A 135 minutes.

In colour, aspect ratio 1.66:1. With English subtitles.

Screenplay: Chu Tien-wen, A Time to Love inspired by Tai Ai-jon, Ms Gin Oy. Director of Photography: Mark Lee Ping-bing. Supervising editor: Liao Ch’ing-song. Production designer: Hwarng wern-ying. Music: Lin Ciong, LiKuo-yuan, K-B-N.

The film features three stories, all starring Shu Qi and Chang Chen, and including Di Mei in supporting roles.

The first, A Time for Love, is set in 1966. Shu Qi plays May, a snooker-hall girl. Di Mei is her mother. And Chang Chen is Chen, a military conscript on leave.

The second, A Time for Freedom, is set in 1911. Taiwan, [then Formosa] was under Japanese control. In Mainland China, after a revolution, Sun Zhong Shan proclaimed the Republic of China. Shu Qi plays a courtesan, Di Mei is the ‘madame’ of the house, whilst Chang Chen [Mr Chang] is a republican.

The third, A Time for Youth, is a contemporary story set in the world of techno-rock and clubs. Shu Qi is singer Jing, who suffers from epilepsy and partial blindness. Di Mei plays her aunt and Chang Chen [Chen] is a motor-biking photographer. Jing also has a girlfriend, Blue (Chen Shih-shan).

Though Hou Hsiao-hsien’s film focuses on love stories, it also alludes to the political history of Taiwan. This is most overt in the second story, set in the tumultuous year of 1911. But there are also references in the other stories. Hsiao-hsien’s earlier films have also addressed Taiwan’s chequered history.  A City of Sadness (Beiqing Chengshi, 1989] dealt with events in the late 1940s, when following the Civil War the mainland Guomindang government evacuated to the island. The Time to Live and the Time to Die (Tongnian Wangshi, 1985) was set in the 1950s and followed the life of a mainland family who had emigrated to the island.

At various stages in it history the Island, formally known as Formosa, was occupied by the Portuguese, Dutch and then Chinese. China ceded it to Japan after the war of 1895. This meant the island people were excluded from the great democratic revolution in Mainland China of 1911. The Island remained under Japanese control during the 1920s and 1930s, when the Japanese invaded both China and Korea. And it remained occupied during the Pacific war from 1941 to 1945. It was recovered for Mainland China in 1945 by the Nationalist Guomindang Government. Conflict ensured and there was an island rebellion in 1947, which was brutally suppressed. When the Guomindang lost in the Civil War to the revolutionary Chinese Communist movement, it retreated to Taiwan. With US support they retained the title Republic of China, and benefited from US aid. Despite US propaganda about ‘democracy’ it was an authoritarian regime with little direct democracy. The détente between China and the USA in the 1970s undermined Taiwan. It lost its UN seat and later the US annulled the mutual security pact. The island’s political system gradually opened up though it was only in 1990 that mainland Guomindang members ceased to dominate the parliament. In 2001 the ban on trade and communication with Mainland China was partially lifted.

STYLE.

It is worth observing the mise en scène in the film: and Mark Lee Ping-bing’s lighting and photography are finely crafted. The selection and organisation of camera shots also show that Hsiao-hsien uses distinctive techniques. He particularly favours the long shot and the long take. The editing of the overall film [as opposed to shot-to-shot] is also distinctive. The arrangement of the stories is not chronological, and a parallel breach of chronology also occurs within the stories. Indeed each story has its own distinctive set of techniques and style.

The sound design produces an evocative track, and music plays a key part in this. Each story has a particular and appropriate song. And the music has both diegetic [part of the story] and non-diegetic [accompanying the story] functions.

The following contains plot information and comments on techniques. I should say that when I first saw the film, at the 2006 Göteborg Film Festival, I found an important part of the pleasure was the way the film surprises viewers.

A Time for Love

The setting in various snooker halls crosses over with Edward Yang’s film A Brighter Summer Day (1991). However, those in this film are not especially seedy and are the locale for a romantic story. The film opens with a shot of May watching Chen play billiards, [the following scenes the game is snooker; the director in an interview refers to pool halls, but we never see that game]. Only later we realise that this shot is out of sequence. Chen only meets May during the course of the film. The mood of the story is partially set by two classic popular songs – Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Rain and Tears. The latter song actually has a diegetic function as Chen mentions listening to it in a letter to May. But, like the classic Platter’s track, it also provides a commentary on the developing relationship.

A Time for Freedom

A Time for Freedom

A Time for Freedom is set in 1911 and presented in the silent film format of that period. The use of a dubbed soundtrack was due to technical limitations, but the style that the director has produced is the result of inspired choice. As with the original silent films, dialogue is imparted by title cards and there is accompanying music. In fact, in two scenes which more or less bookend the story, the accompanying music is a traditional song, which the courtesan is actually performing. But this is entirely appropriate, as alongside early experiments in sound there were also silent presentations where live music was synchronised to the cinematic image. The mise en scéne and the music become especially poignant as the courtesan’s situation mirrors that of Taiwan, left alone and outside the great democratic revolution that swept Mainland China.

A Time for Youth is the most ambiguous of the three stories and the trickiest to follow.

Jing is a singer with two relationships, one with Chen and one with Blue. A key scene shows Jing returning to her flat, where she left Blue earlier.  Blue has awakened and found Jing gone. She types a message on the computer:

I’m fed up hearing your lies, fed up waiting for you.

I love you more than you love me.

You’ll regret this. I’ll kill myself like your ex-girlfriend.

Jing returns. She lights a cigarette and looks round the flat. She read the message left by Blue. There is an off-screen sound and Jing goes and looks on the balcony.  She sits on the bed smoking. Her emotions are difficult to decipher. The viewer is given no further information. I wondered about this scene, and only when I saw the film again was I convinced that the sound we hear is Blue jumping from the balcony. Thus the sequence seems to use a comparatively rare technique, a plot point made by a sound cue.

A Time for Youth

A Time for Youth

I have now seen the film three times, appropriately. I still find it an exceptionally fine film, and well up to Hou Hsiao-hsien’s high standards. It also crosses over with the work of Edward Yang; several of the cast have also featured in his films. Yang’s films also make interesting use of sound tracks. This seems to be a particular skill among Taiwanese filmmakers.

The film is still available in 35mm in the UK. And has been released on DVD by Ocean-films.

Le Voyage du ballon rouge (France/Taiwan 2007)

Fang Song and Simon Iteau in Le Voyage du ballon rouge

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 Hsaio-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.