By Dennis Lim
Continuing the festival’s directors-abroad trendlet: Olivier Assayas’ Hong Kong and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Paris are, without question, more credible, lived-in locales than, say, Wong Kar-wai’s Memphis. (We’ll get to Michael Moore’s Canada, Britain and France later.)
These relocating directors seem to be operating on a broadly similar midcareer impulse, a desire to snap out of old habits, or wed them to new perspectives. Assayas’ lurid, invigorating thriller “Boarding Gate” is less a transition than a stopgap, an attempt (after “Springtime Past,” a project about provincial life in France, was put on hold) to take his place in what he terms “the new order of film finance.” Accordingly, it’s a scaled-back, quick-and-dirty production the opposite of “Clean” (in several ways), a B-movie mutation of “demonlover” and “Irma Vep” with a few unavoidable nods to “Scarlet Diva,” the globe-trotting, ass-kicking calling card of its inimitable star Asia Argento.
Half the film takes place in the anonymous industrial outskirts of Paris, the other amid the distinctive urban chaos of Hong Kong. At the heart of the rote action-plot double-crosses are the Argento character’s relationships, rooted in mutual duplicity and power struggles, with two men she has worked for and loved (Michael Madsen and Carl Ng). Much of the first half is given over to two long sequences all rough sex talk and mindfucking role play between Madsen’s thuggish entrepreneur and Argento’s Sandra, an ex he used to pimp out to his clients. Encouraged to improvise, Madsen pushed things in a direction that, per Assayas in the press kit, “scared both of us, Asia and me.” (“MAD-sen,” Argento said when asked about her co-star at the pre-screening reception.)
The second half, as propulsive as the first is claustrophobic, takes Sandra to Hong Kong, where she must elude a host of obscurely motivated captors (through a food court, a DVD bootlegging office, a karaoke lounge). Kim Gordon, as some kind of crime boss, makes quite an impression, barking out orders in phonetic Cantonese. The finale packs the tough-tender jolt of a first-rate HK genre flick, and Argento’s instinctive, force-of-nature performance is worthy of the emerging queen of the festival (she has two more movies yet to screen: Abel Ferrara’s “Go Go Tales” and Catherine Breillat’s “An Old Mistress”).
Assayas filmed in a city he knows well, but before he started work on “Flight of the Red Balloon,” Hou had only visited Paris as a tourist. He was commissioned by the Musée d’Orsay to make a film that incorporated the museum, read up on Paris (he says he found Adam Gopnik’s “Paris to the Moon,” another outsider’s take on the city, particularly useful), spent time there and immersed himself in French film. He eventually settled on a curious starting point: Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 short “The Red Balloon.”
Juliette Binoche, in perhaps the best and certainly the most eccentric performance of her career, plays Suzanne, a frazzled, bottle-blond single mother who puts in long hours rehearsing at her puppet theater company and has just hired Chinese film student Song (Song Fang) as a nanny for her young son Simon (Simon Iteanu). Obvious echoes of “The Puppetmaster” notwithstanding, it more strongly evokes “Café Lumière,” Hou’s previous foreign film, which likewise dealt with family rupture and had a similarly discreet yet evocative feel for daily, street-level urban existence.
There’s a clear parallel here with the Wong Kar-wai both Hou and Wong are moving on from self-consciously retrospective works (“Three Times” and “2046”) but Hou’s sensibility, grounded in concrete specifics of time and place, travels better.
Hou has not adapted “The Red Balloon” so much as borrowed its iconography: boy, balloon, cityscape. The director and his cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing alternate between generally untouristy Paris exteriors and immaculately framed interiors (mostly in Suzanne’s cramped apartment). The film is more ambience than plot set to a constantly tinkling modernist piano score (replaced, amusingly, by actual piano tuning in one long scene) but there are a number of interpolated narratives, among them the Lamorisse film, which is explicitly referenced (Song is making her own somewhat experimental version).
This is one of Hou’s most sublimely bittersweet films “a bit happy and a bit sad,” as a kid at one point remarks of “The Balloon,” a Félix Vallotton painting that hangs in the Orsay and it also happens to be one of his most ambitious and complex. “Flight of the Red Balloon” opened the Un Certain Regard section, but a third of the way into the festival, it eclipses all the competition titles I’ve seen further reflection has made the film seem richer, stranger, more indelible. One can imagine what repeat viewings will do.
[Photo: Olivier Assayas’ “Boarding Gate,” Wild Bunch/Margo Films, 2007]