FILM MAY 7, 2008
Flight of the Red Balloon
Surprising things happen in Tuya's Marriage. A herd of sheep pushes across the screen, then the herdsman rides in--on a camel. We learn that the herdsman is actually a woman. Later, she rides out on that camel in a snowstorm to find her son, a storm that has been reported to her by radio. For a party in a big town, this woman, who lives in a crude house, goes to a luxe hotel whose name is displayed
in English. All these surprises occur in Mongolia.
The director, Wang Quan An, makes no special point of these oddities: they are merely part of the lives that the film enters. Sheep herding and the vast Mongolian plains are not new subjects, but Wang uses them as the means by which to summon Tuya. She is a young woman who, in Lu Wei's screenplay, is a source of strength, courage, taciturnity, competence. Tuya has two children and is the wife of a herdsman, Bater, who cannot work owing to a recent leg injury. It is Tuya who keeps the family going.
Bundled from head to foot, solid, swift, she is as much a force as a woman. Another surprise is that she is ultrapractical in an unexpected way. Loving wife though she is, after a lumbar dislocation she is willing to divorce the disabled Bater in order to marry a man willing to support both of them. A fiery young herdsman, distraught with his own marital troubles, is mad about Tuya, especially after she announces her unusual divorce plans. But he is outpaced by wealthy men who offer Tuya what she wants--comfort for herself and her children, plus care for Bater--if she will marry one of them. Added to the surprises is our conviction that this woman, this swathed prole of proles, is exactly what those men think she is-- a nuptial prize.
But this is not a marital comedy glistening with surprises: it is too close to labor and pain and fear. Tuya is a kind of swaddled goddess. When her son is frightened of wolves during that snowstorm, she hugs him and says, "Don't worry. Mama will eat the wolves." We can believe it.
The story is intricate, unexpectedly so, because we assume that these are simple people whose needs and drives and thoughts are elemental. What we may overlook is that elemental drives do not exclude complicated means, such as Tuya's divorce proposal. Anyway, simple or otherwise, these people live on a figurative border. The way they dress and house and clothe themselves, eat and drink, seems ancient, yet modern trucks and the swanky automobile of a visitor imply that the next generation or two will be much less firmly strapped to the past.
Wang, whose mother was born in the vicinity of the film's locale, puts this place and these lives before us with affection and admiring rigor. He is magnificently aided by the German cinematographer Lutz Reitemeier, who worked with him on a previous film. To Reitemeier, colors are feasts. Some shots might have been calendar art--though gorgeous, not saccharine. A wedding party near the end, with everyone arrayed in breathtaking finery, is handled by Reitemeier with almost the extra dimension of impasto painting. (The resplendent clothes are another surprise.)
Most of the cast are non-professionals, but all them provide what is needed of them. A man called Senge, who plays the firebrand, could certainly be useful in more films. Tuya is played by Yu Nan, a graduate of the Beijing Film Academy, who has been in two previous Wang films. For the first minutes of her performance, we wonder how Wang found a nonprofessional Mongolian woman who could fulfill this complex role; soon we see that he found an actress who could truly inhabit it. Yu's acting is surreptitiously subtle. And note her hands. She has understood that the performance of a laboring person begins with the hands.
Another estimable Asian director, Hou Hsiao-Hsien of Taiwan, has found his inspiration on the other side of the world--or rather in a film made there. In 1956, Albert Lamorisse, a French director, made a thirty-four-minute film called The Red Balloon that quickly became a pet in art houses and universities and film societies everywhere. Set in Paris--lovingly--the picture follows a small boy as he follows the travels of a red balloon through the skies over the city, as it floats up and down, wandering, pausing, seeming to tease. Watching the film was like having a brief pleasant dream. Now Hou, enchanted by the picture, has used it as the launch site for a film that he was asked to make about Paris. Result: Flight of the Red Balloon.
Which is precisely where it begins. A boy in present-day Paris is watching a red balloon in the sky, speaking to it as he walks and gambols along the street, calling to it to come down. But it ignores him. The boy goes home to his mother, played by Juliette Binoche. Mother is an actress doing voices in a puppet theater for children. She has another child, a daughter who lives in Brussels and sometimes comes to Paris, and she has a husband--or at least a companion--who is now in Montreal. She engages a young Taiwanese woman, a film student (she is herself remaking The Red Balloon!), as a nanny for her boy while she herself keeps on the move. These are the chief figures of a non- exciting, interesting story.
Hou states that his script supplied only the events and that the cast improvised the dialogue (the method of the Commedia dell'arte centuries earlier). Well, the dialogue, to trust subtitles, is all right, but the story that Hou provided is no more than a series of occurrences. All that happens is that we observe some lives (not through the instrumentality of the balloon), and we roll along with them, discovering yet again that the daily doings of nice-enough people, if warmly presented, can fascinate.
Warmth is not Hou's only quality. He has a sense of texture. One long scene set in the small messy living room of Binoche's apartment begins with a blind piano tuner being brought in and setting to work at one side. Then Binoche comes home, quarreling with a neighbor downstairs, after which there are scenes with her boy and a telephone conversation with her distant daughter. Through all this activity, the piano tuner keeps plinking. What holds us through this scene is to some degree the interest we now have in these people, but mostly it is the way the whole scene is composed. Sometimes when listening to an orchestra, we think, "Ah, he added the bassoon just in time. Now the cellos save the day." Hou's scene affords the same sort of structural experience.
Binoche continues to show more versatility than was predictable in her early career. The boy is unactorish and taking. But a puzzle remains about the whole film. What is the relationship of the red balloon to this picture? To the portrayal of Paris a la Lamorisse? For long stretches the balloon disappears and is forgotten by the boy. At the end it reappears and drifts away over Paris as if it had fulfilled its mission and is now off to further adventures. But it has had none here. We can be glad that Lamorisse's picture stimulated Hou to work in Paris, but any number of other French films might have done the same in this utterly unrelated way.
The title of an Israeli film called Jellyfish is not inexplicable, as some recent titles have been: there are relevant mentions of jellyfish in the picture. But the tone of the title is quite misleading. The film is far from limp or dank.
It was written by Shira Geffen, a well-known Israeli writer, who co-directed it with Etgar Keret, also a well-known writer. He has done short films and here, with Geffen, does his first feature. They live in Tel Aviv, and they wanted to make a picture about their city. They depict three young women whose stories, they thought, would present some of their city. This reminded me of Caramel, the recent Lebanese film that had a similar intent about Beirut. The difference is that in Caramel the stories had some relation to one another; Jellyfish is more of a collection of independent stories.
Unlike most such collections by the same author(s), the styles differ. The stories are realistic, romantic, comic, and mysteriously symbolic; Keret and Geffen treat them all with delicacy and insight. Batya, a dispirited waitress, finds an abandoned small girl on the beach and takes her to the police. The child disappears, but she leaves a sort of mark on Batya. Keren is a bride whose wedding is held in a large hall. She goes to the toilet, a narrow stall of a room, and can't reopen the door to get out. (This scene is shot from overhead, which helps the odd irritating humor.) So she shucks her wedding gown, somehow climbs up to the transom over the door, and squeezes through. But when she falls to the floor outside, she injures her leg, which complicates the honeymoon--in a swank hotel--in unforeseeable ways. The third woman is a Philippine domestic worker, who is often on the phone to her son back home but who is so busily moving around that she can't help showing us much of the city.
The film succeeds in its main purpose: to present some of Tel Aviv's atmosphere. Incomprehensible, however, is its last symbolic touch. The small girl found on the beach suddenly reappears on the beach, walks into the sea, and disappears. Batya, who sees this plunge, dives in to find her, and there are underwater shots of the two. Is the child meant to represent some lost joy that Batya will sacrifice herself to regain? The metaphysical moment seems to hang outside the picture--which is nonetheless a lively partial portrait of Tel Aviv, accomplished in vivid colors.
By Stanley Kauffmann