Call me an ingrate, but I cannot suppress the comment that Landmark Theatres have finally found a slot for Hou Hsiao-hsien only after the Taiwanese filmmaker made a film in France and in French, and long after he made such masterpieces as Goodbye South, Goodbye and A City of Sadness. It seems par for the course that by this time he would no longer be making masterpieces. Flight of the Red Balloon, opening Friday at the La Jolla Village, evokes Albert Lamorisse’s fey little half-hour fantasy of 1956 (revived just last Christmastime at Landmark’s Ken), not merely evoked in the last three words of the title, but in very intermittent and unintegrated appearances of an actual red balloon, the size and strength of a beach ball, every bit as autonomous as Lamorisse’s, albeit less active and mischievous, more of a voyeur, a watcher, a guardian angel, a ghostly spirit. A Chinese film student in Paris, employed part-time as a nanny to a boy about the same age as the hero of The Red Balloon, overtly references the Lamorisse film by name, and currently happens to be making her own film about balloons. (She herself never sees the autonomous balloon; only the boy does.) Not even this, however, elevates the motif much above irrelevance. The boy’s mother has her hands full of more down-to-earth matters: an absent husband in Montreal, a daughter (by a previous husband) overdue for a visit from Brussels, a troublesome downstairs tenant, a new production at the puppet theater where she voices the characters, in addition to her son’s new nanny. All in all, she’s a bit of a mess; and Juliette Binoche, under a tumbleweed of dyed blond hair, sometimes comes across as overlarge alongside the serenity of the nanny, Song Fang, and inside the placid picture frames of Hou’s regular cinematographer, Mark Lee Ping-bing, a/k/a Ping-bin, a/k/a Pin-bing.
The ingredient of fantasy is, if memory serves, something new for Hou, and just as well it’s no more than a pinch or two. The Parisian setting is of course something new too, but it doesn’t disturb the Eastern eye or the Eastern pace. Hou will remain Hou, wherever he may go. (He also went somewhere new in Café Lumière. Tokyo. An hommage to Ozu in a greater degree than this one is to Lamorisse.) Pacing, it scarcely bears saying, is crucial to him, though not what’s usually meant by that: not fast, breathless, heart-pounding, and the like, but instead commandingly and compellingly slow, so that you become aware of time ticking by, conscious of the immediate moment, undistracted by where you’re headed. The pace of contemplation. And his eye rarely, if ever, fails him. Although the color here might be a shade jaundiced, the camera is forever wandering casually, as if by chance, into the most exquisite compositions, patched together on a vertical plane out of shop windows, doors, street signs, posters, polygons of peeled plaster, etc., or receding in space down the crevasse of a pedestrian passageway. And it can hardly go wrong amid the clutter of the mother’s cramped and lived-in apartment, the mounted masks, the bookshelves, the stacks of CDs and videos, the vases, the wall calendar, the kitchen doorframe, and on and on. Anywhere the camera turns in this place, it will find a Bonnard-like bonanza. There is endless ingenuity in these discoveries, and there’s even a certain type of suspense in the anticipation of the next eye-grabber, an alertness to the unrolling panorama of life. Can this be considered an adequate substitute for action, incident, plot twist, character revelation? Without question it can. More than adequate. That a film engage your interest, one way or another, is a modest enough request, often enough unmet. Outside of the infrequent flights of the red balloon, this one engaged mine continuously.
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Redbelt, also at Landmark’s La Jolla Village (and elsewhere) this Friday, disburses David Mamet’s two cents on the Mixed Martial Arts craze. His first film since Spartan, four years ago, again brims with Spartan machismo. “Control your emotions.” “A man distracted is a man defeated.” “Conquer your fear and you conquer your opponent.” These directives, and others out of the same playbook, issue from a disciple of Brazilian jiu-jitsu (the protean Chiwetel Ejiofor, a crinkle of vulnerability scoring his stoical countenance) in an unadorned storefront gym in South Los Angeles, a man “too pure” to make money, as his business-minded wife grumbles, “too pure” in specific to dirty his hands in the pay-per-view fight racket. “Competition,” he elucidates, “is weakening.” Promotion, he might have added, is demeaning. (The filmmaker, seeking only the honest dollar at the box-office, stands squarely behind him.) An apparently fortuitous intervention in a barroom brawl, saving the bacon of a slumming Hollywood action star (Tim Allen, doing for Mamet what Steve Martin did for him, and vice versa, in The Spanish Prisoner), brings about an upturn in his prospects, an offer of a cushy position as co-producer on a big-budget Iraq War movie. Anyone familiar with Mamet, however, will be on the lookout for the hidden motive, the invisible pattern, the controlling intelligence. Even when there’s none there.
To enter a Mamet film is to enter a world. And, despite the many points of connection to other martial-arts films, it’s no different here: the clear-eyed, level, steady, arm’s-length point of view, the clipped cadences, the out-of-sync dialogues, the Pinter-esque repetitions, the lurking sense of the unsaid, the pervading subtle stylization. His well-drilled cast — blending Mamet regulars like Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay, and Rebecca Pidgeon together with new recruits like Alice Braga, Emily Mortimer, and Max Martini, plus card-carrying martial artists like Randy Couture, Ray Mancini, and John Machado — maintains a discipline analogous to, if not quite equal to, that of the ascetic hero. (Owing in part to the heterogeneity, they never sound, like so many Woody Allen casts, as if they’re speaking with one voice.) You can almost believe that the writer-director, himself a purple belt in jiu-jitsu, came to the subject through life rather than through movies, and that he had never seen and studied his countless predecessors and competitors. Almost. There is nothing slack, formulaic, on-autopilot about the unfoldment of the plot; it is unflaggingly focussed, intense, and intriguing. All the way to, but not through, the end. However artfully maneuvered, the climax falls into the corniest convention of the nonviolent hero forced at last, against all his principles, to fight. And the fight itself is a bit of a letdown, not just in the staging (Ejiofor, though he put up a pugilistic good show at the end of Four Brothers, is no martial-arts master), but also in the unfortunate similarity, right down to the outside-the-ring venue, to the recent Never Back Down, bad company indeed. And the reverent hush of the onlooking crowd is preposterous: a committed practitioner might sometimes, somewhere, be so devout, but never, ever, the bloodthirsty paying customer. The risk of silliness — all this solemnity about “the code of the warrior,” honor, morality, fealty, etc. — has been present and palpable all along. But until the end, Mamet had borne it with the mesmeric deadpan of a Jean-Pierre Melville gangster pastiche. By then, his two cents had accrued to more like two bucks.