Just Passing Through 

An Englishman befouls India in Before the Rains. A Taiwanese blesses Paris in Flight of the Red Balloon.

The story is an ancient one: While a rich man's wife and child are away from home, the master falls in love with his beautiful young housemaid. When the lady of the house returns, tragedy befalls. That's the outline of filmmaker Santosh Sivan's lavishly produced costumed melodrama, Before the Rains, but director Sivan and the late screenwriter Cathy Rabin take care to stir in plot elements that raise the narrative from the domestic to the political to the universal, all while keeping its relatively tight focus on a British colonial family and its tea plantation in restive Southern India in the 1930s.

Henry Moores (dutifully played by all-purpose character lead Linus Roache) is the sort of chap who made the British Empire rich, a dull but enterprising farmer with his eye on the commodities markets. As the film opens he's seeking to expand his operations by building a road into the mountains, thus adding spices to his line of exports. He's aided in his efforts by the district's English banker, Mr. Humphries (veteran supporting actor John Standing). Together, they make a pair of ostensibly proper but institutionally exploitative colonial types whose ignorance of the native culture is matched by their condescension toward it.

The guilty maid, Sajani (Indian international star Nandita Das), happens to already have a husband in the nearby village, so her dalliance with sahib Henry automatically becomes a capital offense according to local customs. We're not shown how their relationship began — by the time we first see them together, it's already red-hot. Henry has promised Sajani he'll divorce his wife and run away with her. One sultry afternoon they sneak off for a jungle quickie in the sacred grove, and a couple of village tykes spot them. Bang. Endgame. But the denouement takes its time arriving, with twists and turns in the midst of its inevitability.

The era in which Henry, Sajani, and Henry's utterly bewildered wife Laura (Jennifer Ehle) play out their fates is the time of India's fledgling independence movement. Seemingly every time Henry takes his truck out for a ride, he drives through a surly crowd being urged by speakers to expel the British. No one is more conflicted about all this than T.K. (Rahul Bose), Henry's foreman and the moral center of the film. T.K.'s parents are respected members of the community, and he has staked his future to Henry's enterprises despite the villagers' misgivings about the colonists. When the forbidden affair is revealed, it is T.K. who gets stuck with the dirty work, caught in the middle between his outraged people and his personal ambitions. Henry, ever the callow cad, never hesitates to compromise T.K. in trying to cover up his misdeeds. Bose's performance as the conscience-stricken T.K. has the complexity the rest of this otherwise meticulous production lacks.

Before the Rains — the title refers to Henry's timetable to complete the road before the monsoon season — sports the requisite sheen of a latter-day Indian international prestige film. That luster was largely patented by the film's presenter, Merchant Ivory Productions, in such Anglo-Indian yarns as Shakespeare Wallah, Bombay Talkie, and Heat and Dust.

For director Sivan, the Kerala native whose admirably tense 1999 political thriller The Terrorist focused on Tamil separatist violence, Before the Rains, his first English-language feature, represents his initiation into the Mira Nair school of high-gloss, Indian-themed art films destined for US and European audiences. Those auds like their British Raj dramas lushly appointed and attractively photographed, even when they deal with adultery, wife-beating, suicide, white mischief, and the South Indian ritual of Kammadan, a trial by fire that involves licking a hot ladle in order to divine the truth. And Sivan doesn't disappoint. If only the whole thing weren't so pretty.

Before the Rains is being sold as an ornamental tale of tantalizingly soiled romance, rather than as a treatise on the conflicted morality of a man caught in the gears of history. Credit the filmmakers with having the courage to follow through on their gritty, ground-level tale of colonial high jinks, wet kisses and all.

Big Red Best Friend

Like many others, filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien was enchanted by The Red Balloon, Albert Lamorisse's children's classic about a solitary boy whose "imaginary friend," a large red balloon, follows him all over Paris with a mind of its own. So when the Musée d'Orsay offered Hou — the celebrated Taiwanese international director of Dust in the Wind, A City of Sadness, Goodbye South, Goodbye, and Millennium Mambo — the chance to remake the 1957 fantasy, he accepted gleefully.

The result is a movie about Paris that doesn't feel "French" in the way that European capital is usually presented to Americans. It moves to different rhythms. Hou's slice of backstreet Paris is quiet, composed, almost serene in spite of itself. As in the original, its juvenile protagonist is a young boy, seven-year-old Simon (curly-haired Simon Iteanu), an imaginative kid who compensates for being neglected by his busy single mother Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) by talking to his big friend in the sky.

Simon's new nanny, a student filmmaker from Beijing named Song (Song Fang), accompanies him warmly through piano lessons, trips to his mother's puppet theater, etc. Song is just the calm companion Simon needs, and she even starts to make a film about him. Preoccupied mom Suzanne, on the other hand, is nervous and easily distracted, with ex-spouse and tenant problems plus the usual urban stresses. All the while the Red Balloon hovers patiently outside the window like Simon's guardian angel, although director Hou and screenwriter François Margolin don't seem much interested in religious allegory for its own sake.

Nothing much happens, and yet the world changes under Simon's feet. Paris sprouts leafy parks, a Chinese puppet master, a blind piano tuner named Guillaume, and cafes where you can order peppermint soda or grenadine juice. The original solo piano music by pop singer Camille fits the story's gentle whimsicality perfectly, as does her song "Tchin-Tchin." And you can never go wrong with Charles Aznavour on the jukebox. Don't worry about little Simon. The kid has it made.

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