Wajib (Palestine-France-Columbia-UAE-Qatar-Germany-Norway, 2017)

Father-son relationships everywhere?

I didn’t know they had green wheelie-bins in Nazareth, a Palestinian city occupied by Israel since 1948. Of course there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have them or that I should know, however what is striking about Wajib is despite the differences between life there and, well, most other places, there’s more in common than not. The title refers to the tradition of personally handing out wedding invitations in the Arab-Christian community and we spend the day with real-life father-son, Mohammad and Saleh Bakri, playing the key roles.

The conflict in the narrative derives from the inter-generational differences, family problems that date back 20 years and the son’s politics, which have led him to live in Italy. He has returned for his sister’s wedding and finds his Dad has woven tales about him that he has told family and friends; the disconnect between these and the reality is one of the rich veins of humour in the film. Israeli presence is limited: in one scene soldiers, to the son’s outrage, frequent a local cafe. It’s not that writer director Annemarie Jacir has downplayed the Israeli government’s annexation of Palestinian land, or ignored the policies that are literally strangling the life out of the Palestinian people, rather she is offering a slice of life. It beggars belief that everyday life can go on for when we hear about the region, in the West, on the news it’s usually because there’s been violence resulting in deaths; and mostly only if they’re Israeli. Of course life does go on and here we can see some of it.

Mohammad and Saleh Bakri are both supremely effective, Mohammed (Dad), in particular, especially when his eyes droop slightly in resignation when he realises that politeness dictates he’s going to have to spend longer than he wants at a particular friend’s or relative’s. In one scene, his whole body gradually sags as a particularly pedantic recipient insists on reading out the whole invitation to them.

Obligations to friends and family everywhere can be burdensome but the Arab tradition of hospitality both accentuates this and, at the same time, shows the exceptional warmth of their community. Jacir isn’t soft-soaping though: a hairdresser praising the family immediately starts maliciously gossiping as soon as she thinks the son is out of hearing. I need to catch up with more of Jacir’s work and her script is a miracle of elaboration, basically two men chatting and meeting people, so to make that riveting takes real skill.

Quai des orfèvres (France, 1947)

Unusually obvious lesbian character for the time

As Jeremy Carr’s excellent article suggests: “Quai des Orfèvres is an appeasing palate cleanser, an amusing diversion, still within the confines of social realism but generally free from a climate of widely-ravaged despair.” The despair refers to the world of Le corbeau (Clouzot’s previous film) and post-war France. Despite this characters are often wrapped in coats even when they are inside and although it is generally light-hearted there is much heartache as go-getting, in the world of Music Hall, Jenny (Suzy Delair) worries husband Maurice (Bernard Blier) about her fidelity. Their friend Dora (Simone Renant) looks over the couple benignly but obviously holds a flame for Jenny; as she says, ‘I am a woman of strange loves’. The machinations of the plot lead to murder and then Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet) arrives on the scene along with the police procedural genre.

As in Le courbet there is much comic dialogue; I particularly like the Inspector’s: “If you were murdered then you would be pleased the cops were around.” There is also Hitchcockian humour such as when he lights his pipe with vital evidence and the band rehearse vibrant gipsy music in the background as Jenny and Maurice argue. During the 1950s Clouzot and Hitchcock were rivals for the sobriquet ‘master of suspense’ and the latter made Vertigo, based on a French novel, as a counterblast to the former’s Les diaboliques (1955).

Clouzot wrote the Quai des Orfèvres, based on Stanislas-André Steeman’s novel, with Jean Ferry but gets sole credit for dialogue which is often in excess of narrative requirements. It’s not only often funny but elaborates on character; we learn that Antoine has a mixed race child he fathered when in the Foreign Legion and for whom he is the sole carer. There a few touching scenes between the two, touching because it is unusual to see a male single-parent in such a loving relationship. The fact that the child is ‘black’ shows Clouzot’s progressiveness as does the sympathetic portrayal of Dora; an antidote to his working for the Nazis (see Le corbeau)? I wondered, on the basis of Le corbeau, whether he might be a misanthrope: the answer’s clearly ‘no’ in this film.

Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue works in a similar way, though he was inspired by French New films such as Shoot the Pianist (Tirez sur le pianiste, 1960), however he doesn’t know when to stop and his witty dialogue (for me) palls quickly.

Clouzot won Best Director honours at the 1947 Venice Film Festival and he shows himself as a skilful manipulator of large to small groups of people. He choreographs their movements beautifully, reminding me of Jean Renoir; praise doesn’t get any higher.

Apparently the iconoclasts of Cahiers du cinema didn’t like his films, which is surprising given he wrote as well as directed. I can’t judge on what I’ve seen whether he qualifies as an auteur or not, however the dialogue, at least, is distinctive and there is certainly a Gothic undertone to his mise en scene. Maybe as the Cahiers critics were railing against French cinema there was no room for Clouzot in the polemic? Or maybe his association with the Nazis was the issue. The title, by the way, refers to the address of the main police station in Paris though that doesn’t sum up what the film is about.

Le corbeau (France, 1943)

Poison pen

Writer-director Henri-Georges Clouzot is probably best known for Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur, 1953) and Les diaboliques (1957, both France); Le corbeau was his second feature made for the Nazi-controlled Continental Films; the first was The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (L’Assassin habite… au 21, 1942). For understandable reasons, now and at the time, that can be enough to write the film, and the director, off as morally culpable.  Le corbeau was deemed to be ‘anti-French’ and he was banned for life from making films until it was rescinded in 1947. History has been kinder to the film, particularly as the Nazis hated it too.

The raven of the title is an anonymous ‘poison pen’ letter writer terrorising a small French town that could be anywhere at anytime; the titles at the start suggest such universality. Pierre Fresnay plays the unlikeable protagonist Doctor Germain who is the main focus of letter writer’s bile; the letters suggest that he is adulterous and an abortionist. In part, the film is a thriller (who is writing the letters?) but it also a melodrama of small-town hypocrisies not unlike some of Douglas Sirk’s ’50s Hollywood films. It is the latter that invoked the wrath of the Nazis.

Vichy France ‘thrived’ on ‘collaboration’, no matter what the myth of the Resistance says, and Clouzot nails the narrow-minded, vindictiveness of those who pass on malicious gossip and shows its damaging consequences. Of course, the occupying Nazis thrived on informing. In one brilliant scene, an accused nun runs through deserted streets with the howls of a baying mob on the soundtrack. She reaches her home to find it vandalised and the mob materialise outside her window.

The local government officials get it in the neck too. One council member insists that they must be seen to be doing something; reminding me of the UK government’s response to Covid-19: much hot air and nowhere near enough action. I haven’t seen enough of Clouzet’s films to judge whether he was a misanthropist but it is difficult to find a pleasant character in the film. The local peasants-workers are marginalised and so are spared his satirical swipes; the bourgeoisie are skewered, which is apparently typical of his films.

In one scene the Doctor discusses the moral issues of the events with the cynical, and funny, psychiatrist Vorzet (Pierre Larquay). As they discuss good and evil, light and dark, a light bulb swings next to a globe no doubt suggesting the universality of human vindictiveness. I’m not sure I buy into that, the current crisis has shown much empathy and kindness (and more than enough of the opposite including informing on neighbours), but it works very well in the context of the film.

Cynical view?

Le corbeau is the first of a Clouzot triple bill on MUBI; I’m looking forward to the others.

 

Casablanca (US, 1942)

Doing the right thing

It’s over 25 years since I’ve seen this classic Classical Hollywood film and I revisited it spurred by my viewing of Curtiz. ‘Timeless classics’ is a meaningless phrase that seeks to legitimise bourgeois values through their supposed universality. However, the test of time is a good one as texts that are distinctly of their time can seem dated later. In addition, as we age are views change so movies that last seen years ago can be understood very differently despite the fact they haven’t changed at all. Casablanca still delivered for me as a marvellous mash-up of romanticism and idealism. It’s also striking that many countries, USA in particular, could do with a dose of anti-isolationism that the film delivers; currently it’s being reported that America is ‘hijacking’ medical supplies purchased by other countries for Covid-19.

Why is Casablanca so good? The script, by Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, is superb in its narrative economy and has some great lines. It has the odd clunker too: at least Ingrid Bergman has the decency to look away when she says, “Is that the sound of cannons or my heart beating?”. Curtiz’s direction is efficient (not meant to be faint praise); Arthur Edeson’s cinematography is sublime, particularly the glamourising of the leads; Herman Hupfeld’s ‘As Time Goes By’, superbly performed by Dooley Wilson, is perfect for the wistful emotions of displacement; the supporting cast is brilliant – apparently only three of the principals (Bogart, Wilson and Joy Page) were American. Character actors Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre are, as ever, fabulous in the few scenes they get. In many ways it’s a typical Hollywood factory production, a melange of many talents (Claude Rains needs a nod too), notwithstanding the interference from the OWI noted in the Curtiz post. Mention also should be given to Conrad Veidt playing a role a long way from that of the somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr CaligariIn Curtiz he’s shown telling the director of his pain at playing a Nazi and asking for the character to be shot. Whilst Veidt wasn’t Jewish, his wife was and Wikipedia tells me on filling in the Nazi’s ‘racial questionnaire’ he put ‘Jew’. In a close-up, we see him taking his Nazi cap off to reveal a skullcap underneath; an adroit way of showing his sympathies.

I’ve saved Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman until last as they are probably key ingredients to the film’s greatness. Bogart’s casting as a romantic lead, in his 43rd year, was inspired as he was known as a ‘hard man’. Initially he came to fame as a gangster but had starred in the seminal film noir The Maltese Falcon the year before where, at least, he played the good guy. To see the tough guy with tears in his eyes is a striking representation of the painful emotions he feels that are still bottled up in his careworn, gravestone face. I recently saw Bergman in her last film for cinema Autumn Sonata (Höstsonaten , Sweden, 1978), directed by Ingmar Bergman, where she shows what a marvellous actor she was. Of course she’s good in Casablanca too but here it’s her dreamy appearance that is key, demonstrating why the men fall for her (sexist I know but that was – and is – the time).

Selfless sacrifice for the greater good is with us now during the Covid-19 pandemic. Casablanca is a film for our time.

First Reformed (US-UK-Australia, 2017)

Religion in the modern world

I’m probably one of the least qualified people to comment on a film about religion as I’m mostly ignorant of the themes that inform them. I didn’t even twig that the potentially redeeming character, played by Amanda Seyfried, was called Mary until I read Gillian Horvat’s excellent Sight & Sound article. So this post will be limited by my secular outlook.

I’m aware that writer-director Paul Schrader has form in dealing with metaphysical issues and was more attracted to the film by Ethan Hawke’s presence. I can’t think of a contemporary actor who consistently turns up in more interesting material and who, invariably, delivers brilliant performances. The only time he disappointed me was when he was, I felt, miscast in Maudie (Ireland-Canada, 2016); here his star power overwhelmed the simplicity of his character. In First Reformed we know that his Toller is a deeply conflicted priest right from the start, as he delivers a sermon, simply through his non verbal communication: his posture is uncertain and intonation full of doubt. Alexander Dynan’s austere cinematography, it was shot in late autumn/winter (and apparently influenced by Berman’s Winter Light, Nattvardsgästerna, Sweden, 1963), beautifully captures Toller’s despair.

Whilst I have no problem with existential angst it was rewarding when, as the film progressed, the despair gained a political edge as Toller tries to console a parishioner who questions the wisdom of bringing a child into the world that is doomed to climate catastrophe. The introduction of the ‘big business’ bad guy (whose argument against mitigating climate change is, “It’s complicated, right!”) also works to root the metaphysical problems in the real world.

Most of Schrader’s camera work is austere too: an unmoving camera placed not necessarily to get all the action. However, he’s not averse to breaking away from arthouse realism. There are two scenes where the metaphysical outweighs the physical: (spoiler alert) one where Mary and Toller float through together through the ether (for want of a better term) and, at the end which for some, Peter Bradshaw for one, went too far. I take Bradshaw’s point, but the ending is only problematic if you read it as realist. In fact, it’s clear that the doors to Toller’s residence are locked and Mary could not have entered so the ending is really all in the priest’s mind.

There’s probably something symbolic about the church he ministers as it’s about to celebrate its 250 anniversary and so places its origins in colonial days. That one went over my head too.

I haven’t actually seen many of Schrader’s films as director (and he’s credited with 26 on imdb); I’ve long wanted to catch Blue Collar (US, 1976) his debut. I need to catch up with him as the ones that I’ve seen I’ve mostly enjoyed.

A Sun (Taiwan, 2019)

Unlike father

It’s striking that a two and a half plus hour melodrama doesn’t quite give enough attention to some of the characters. That’s not to say that the script by Chung Mong-hong and Chang Yao-sheng, is baggy, more that it is so rich in its characterisation; Chung also directed as well as photographing the film under the pseudonym Nakashima Nagao. It’s a family melodrama featuring, what Han Cheung, of the Taipei Times, tells us is a typical emotional landscape of a Tawainese family:

‘This kind of family dynamic is fairly common in Taiwanese society. Although every family member deeply cares for each other, they shut each other out and even say hurtful things, often preferring to secretly “help” in ways that cause even more discord. A-wen’s character exemplifies this archetype — frail, crooked and wrinkled but unwilling to bend even a little bit.’

A-wen is the putative family patriarch (Chen Yi-wen) who works as a driving instructor but is clearly himself forever learning about the responsibility and roles of a father and husband. The films starts when one of his sons, A-Ho (Wu Chien-Ho) takes part in an eye-popping assault that makes it appear we are watching a gang movie and not a family melodrama. He’s indicted and receives no support from dad in the courtroom. We spend some time in juvenile detention with A-Ho during which his mum, Miss Qin (Samantha Ho), learns he’s got his girlfriend pregnant. Miss Qin is the bedrock of the family and it’s questionable, from a western perspective, why she doesn’t chuck her husband out.

They have another son, A-Hao (Han Hsu Greg), who’s a dreamy youngster trying to get into medical college. His character is somewhat under drawn and a shocking narrative turn suffers from this. Similarly, A-wen’s girlfriend is given little space to develop as a character and disappears before the end.

There are other complications (are you keeping up?) as when A-Ho is freed his old partner in crime, the superbly named Radish in a chiling performance by Liu Kuan-Ting, returns to mess up his rehabilitation.

As you can see there’s plenty of melodramatic meat and this is served up with some stunning cinematography where green and red predominates giving a sickly and violent hue to a often hyperreal mise en scene, particularly in the night scenes. It’s not surprising that the film was a big winner at the Taiwanese Golden Horse awards (for Chinese language films), including best film, director and for Chen Yi-wen and Liu Kuan-Ting.

The Awakening of the Ants (El despertar de las hormigas, Costa Rica-Spain, 2019)

Preparing for patriarchy

This is a superb debut from writer-director Antonella Sudasassi featuring an astonishing central performance from Daniela Valenciano in only her second film appearance, 10 years after her first. She plays Isabel, mother of two daughters and wife to Alicdes (Leynar Gomez) who’s, along with his family, petitioning for a third child. When we meet Isa she is decorating a birthday cake whilst the mayhem of a children’s party whirls around her. The men talk football and ask for coffee and beers. The camera lingers on her and Sudasassi’s facial expressions tell us all we need to know of what she is feeling; it is bravura filmmaking and performance. And then she plunges her hands into the cake, in frustration, taking us into Isa’s interior world.

The film portrays the everyday life of a poor Costa Rican family which Latin American machismo, and the Catholic Church, makes worse by consigning women to the role of homemaker; Isa dreams of having a sewing business and knows having a third child would make that even more unlikely. Sudasassi daringly has Isa discover her own sexuality from her young, and innocent, daughter. In a brilliant scene she experiments with masturbation while her husband sleeps oblivious next to her.

I mentioned the destruction of the cake, which was all in Isa’s mind, and we are ‘treated’ to other expressionist moments, such as when insects plague her in the shower. Isa is having a mental breakdown with no one to support her. As strong female characters go, she is with the best as she strives to overcome her oppression.

Alicides is no monster. As no doubt most men in patriarchal societies are, he is blithely ignorant of his privilege. In one scene she insists he help lay the table for dinner and he has to be told where the cutlery is and reminded to include glasses. He’s uncomplaining and bemused and certainly has no understanding that really he should know where all this stuff is!

The performances are excellent throughout and Sudasassi shoots family scenes with the authenticity of ‘direct cinema’. In particular the two daughters are marvellously natural; as a portrayal of a ‘slice of life’ goes this one oozes authority.

The film was screened in Berlin and on MUBI worldwide (just available for three more days) and, as Sudasassi explains:

‘The story of Isabel of Hormigas is part of a transmedia project which seeks to explore sexuality in the vital stages of women. The project is interdisciplinary and collaborative and invited artists* from all over the world to create a collective mosaic of honest experiences about femininity and sexuality in order to demystify it and provoke a rupture with the violence inherent in traditional gender roles.’

She is a talent to watch.

Under the Tree (Undir trénu, Iceland-Poland-Denmark-Germany-France, 2017)

Neighbourly attentions

Director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson co-wrote the script with Huldar Breiðfjörð which sets up an interesting ‘neighbours at war’ situation: the tree of the title is the catalyst. There is a secondary narrative featuring marital breakdown but this is not successfully integrated with the central theme. The link between the two is the embittered mother, Inga (Edda Björgvinsdóttir), who’s aching for a fight with her neighbours. She is the mother of the cyber-philandering Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson) whose wife kicks him out; the cyber-philandering is Atli masturbating watching a video of himself having sex with an ex; that’s an excellent metaphor for a failing marriage.

Inga is traumatised by a missing, presumably by suicide, son and apparent envy of the fortysomething attractive woman, Eybjorg (Selma Björnsdóttir), who their neighbour, Konrad (Þorsteinn Bachmann), has taken up with. Monika Lenczewska’s cinematography beautifully captures the pallid Icelandic light that Eybjorg tries to sunbathe in; the shading tree is clearly a problem. While the stupid, but easily done, escalation of the dispute is well portrayed, Atli’s necessary return home, and his attempts to get access to his daughter, don’t sit comfortably in the scenario; his is merely an additional problem. Roy points out that both narratives dramatise a breakdown in relationships but marriage and neighbourliness, to me, are very different. This could be my lack of contextual knowledge as the film is intended to be a satire on dysfunctional Icelandic society; in The Guardian review Sigurðsson is quoted as saying: ‘his inspiration for Under the Tree was Iceland’s high rate of “neighbour rage”’.

Certainly in the finale of the film we enter disturbing territory as the blackly comic nature of ordinary people getting angry and standing their ground reaches an a conclusion that belongs in the horror genre. However, the scene, set in a well-tooled garage, seems to come from another film and would have been more effective if I had been convinced that the narrative was satirising the bourgeois mores that emphasise property rights over communal living. Actually, it’s just occurred to me that as Atli and his wife live in communal housing, they have house meetings to discuss various issues, that that is exactly what the film was doing. The latter is shown not to be any better as a meeting degenerates into gripes about loud sex and corruption. So I was being ‘dim’ apparently.

The film is, by the way, worth seeing.

 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, France, 2019)

The silenced speaking

I was relieved to get to see this the day before the cinemas closed. The buzz has been about for months and the film exceeded my expectation. It has been a brilliant year in the cinema so far (well, that may be the end of it) with Little WomenWeathering With You, So Long, My Son, ParasiteBacurau and Lillian all fabulous cinematic experiences; Portrait of a Lady on Fire tops them all.

Unusually, the Anglophone distributors’ title is better than the original because ‘lady’, rather than ‘girl/woman’, suggests the film is about social class as well as gender. It also references Henry James’ novel, adapted by Jane Campion (UK-US, 1996) as her follow up to her feminist classic The Piano (New Zealand-Australia-France, 1993). We’re straight into Piano territory at the start of writer-director Céline Sciamma’s new film; she won ‘best screenplay at Cannes’. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives at an island on the Breton coast and is dropped off on her own on the beach. Unlike Ada in The Piano, Marianne’s art is her painting, which she has to jump into the sea to save. She’s been hired by La Comtesse (Valeria Golino) to paint her daughter in order to guarantee a marriage to a wealthy Milanese ‘gentleman’. The daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel, also in Sciamma’s Water Lilies) – surely named for the 12th century proto-feminist nun – refuses to be painted; she’s been hauled out of a nunnery after her sister’s suicide. Presumably her sister killed herself to avoid the fate awaiting Héloïse. Marianne has to pretend to be Héloïse’s companion and paint her at night.

What follows is a patient development of their relationship and, to an extent, with the maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami – seen in School’s Out). There’s too much going on in the film to delve deeply into it after just one viewing. Sciamma (whose Water Lilies (Naissance des pieuvres, France, 2007) and Girlhood I quite liked; the latter received ‘rave’ reviews) allows her camera to be still, allowing the superb actors to take the weight of the narrative; the production design, by Thomas Grézaud, and Clare Mathon’s (of Atlantics) cinematography are fabulous. This stillness evokes portraiture which, of course, is one of the themes of the film: the representation of a person and, more specifically, a woman. The ‘female gaze’, men are virtually absent, is paramount in the film and Sciamma’s ‘queer eye’ offers a different way of eroticising the female body (though in a Guardian interview she says they didn’t get it in France). The key to understanding representation is knowing ‘who is speaking’ and here the voice, Sciamma’s obviously but also the characters’, is indisputably female. In contrast Blue is the Warmest Colour reveals itself as male fantasy. The film also manages to deal with the erasure of women artists from art history: it is a very rich text indeed!

Some of the specifically female things we don’t usually get to see in cinema are shown: period pains and abortion. Sophie has the latter and Héloïse demands Marianne look; in effect chiding the spectator at the same time because ‘not looking’ is an attractive option. Unusually for melodrama Sciamma ‘dials down’ the emotion in much of the film, the characters are virtually taciturn, but in this scene a baby plays with Sophie’s face during the operation to emotionally devastating affect. The repressed emotions serve to heighten the moments when the ‘dam breaks’, including one of the most emotionally draining final shots I’ve ever seen.

Sciamma’s use of music is fascinating as I didn’t notice any non-diegetic (on the soundtrack) music, though two composers are credited. Early in the film Marianne tries to play the storm sequence from Summer (Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons) on a clavichord (I think); the payoff for this is in the aforementioned last shot. The other music is an apparent folk song (actually created by Sciamma) of the local female peasantry at a bonfire. The modernity of the chants suddenly breaks the diegesis (narrative world) of the 18th century as timeless sexual attraction between the protagonists is at last acknowledged by them.

I’ve already praised Mathon’s cinematography: she makes some of the scenes look like paintings and one where the lady, Héloïse, is doing the food prep whilst the maid embroiders is a startling utopian image. The utopian possibility is explained by the isolated setting on an island and many scenes on the beach, which is a liminal space where change is possible.

Portrait of a Lady is a truly great film and is available online at Curzon Home Cinema.

Addenum

In April the film showed up on MUBI so I watched again to realise, in the above, I’d neglected to mention the way the film deals with love. Sciamma investigates this through different interpretations of the Orpheus myth. Of course the initial red-hot desire that can exist at the start of a relationship can never last and must change into something else for love to be sustained so is Orpheus, when he turns to look at Eurydice as she returns to the Underworld, thinking of his memory of his love? Does Eurydice insist that her husband look to ensure their memory of love isn’t tainted by a return to life?

I thought the film even better on a second viewing and noticed more the brilliant costume designs by Dorothée Guiraud. Obviously the big-screen experience was better but the only time ‘home viewing’ failed to (nearly) match the intensity of the cinema was on the soundtrack in the two great musical moments mentioned above.

Balloon (Qi qiu, China, 2019) – GFF2

The balloons are condoms

Although the film is slated as Chinese, it is in essence Tibetan (although writer-director Tseden Pema is Chinese): it’s set in rural Tibet and, I believe, most of the dialogue is Tibetan. Key is the Buddhist religion which, alongside China’s ‘one child’ policy, introduced in 1985, are the restraints on the ordinary people’s lives we observe. From a western perspective (I’ve never been to Tibet) the ‘slice of life’ aspect gives the film an ethnographic feel (which is one of the delights of ‘world’ cinema). Only three actors are listed on imdb so it’s likely most of the cast are non professionals which, along with the location shooting, adds to the authenticity of what we’re seeing. However, the film is also a melodrama, a heightened version of reality, and, as the title suggests, the balloons are representative.

The film starts with the Dargye (Jinpa – above right) arriving to provide supplies to his dad who’s tending sheep and the lively youngsters. We see the scene through what appears to be a misty lens which transpires to be a subjective shot from one of the boys through the balloon they found under their parents’ pillow. The ‘balloons’ are condoms and so links directly to the information we are give right at the start which informs us of the ‘one child’ policy introduced in 1985. Any family having more than one is fined and as this particular family are scrimping to send an elder son to college, this would have serious consequences. The family’s eldest child has become a nun after an unspecified trauma in a relationship with a man who now teaches at the boy’s college: a perfect example of melodramatic narrative coincidence. The teacher’s written an acclaimed novel, called Balloon, about that relationship which he gives to her when she picks up her brother for the summer holidays.

In the narrative, women are more important than men even though the society is patriarchal. The mother, Drolka (Sonam Wongmo), seeks sterilisation from an enlightened doctor (female) and when she becomes pregnant the drama reaches a crisis. There’s some humour, particularly over the young boys’ bargaining with their mates with the ‘balloons’.

The narrative deals the clashes with tradition (particularly religion) in the context of China’s oppressive policy of the time. The time is something of a confusion: at one point the dad has what looks like a small mobile phone (placing the film late in the 20th century at the earliest) and a news broadcast about the world’s first test tube baby is seen; that was in 1978. I was confused. However Lu Songye’s stunning cinematography creates a ‘bleached’ mise en scene that is accentuated with spots of colour (a red sweater, for instance). As to what the balloons represent? I think it is the future (the condoms prevent children in the future) and the teacher is trying to mend his relationship with the sister. Pema finishes with another humorous scenes featuring the boys but there’s a devastating ending too…  I need to seek out the directors’ other six features.