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Review: Red Balloons, a Fresh Musical Take on Vintage Vietnamese Cartoons

At 6:30pm on July 5, Red Balloons: Music for 20th Century Vietnamese Animation took place at the Institut français de Hanoi-L'Espace. It was organized by The Onion Cellar and The Centre for Assistance and Development of Movie Talents (TPD) as part of the Like the Moon in A Night Sky: A Perspective of Vietnamese Cinema program that has been going on since late June.

The Red Balloons screening consisted of five short animated films produced between the 1970s and 1990s, now refreshed by new music made by young artists. At first glance, it might seem like the kind of dry, highbrow program that could only be enjoyed by a certain crop of young, Converse-clad Hanoian intellectuals. And yet, it was the music that was the hero of the cine-concert. The show turned out, as was intended, to be an experience dedicated to children.

From the early days of whirring projectors in the dark cinema to outdoor screenings filled with the drone of mosquitoes or a buzzing television in some small living room, animation has always been a magnetic force attracting the attention of young children, whether they are babies, toddlers or sullen students. For them, it's a window into the strange, mesmerizing outside world. Animation breaks the confining walls of the cultural-psychological space of the home and connects children to the larger world, one that contains not only the present, but also the past; not only real people, but also anthropomorphized animals to act as the children’s playmates to encourage their colorful, kaleidoscopic imagination.

Animation is not just a collection of images made by adults to teach lessons to children; it allows the adults themselves to connect with their inner child, to recognize their own naivety, their innocence, the adventures that they carry in their heart. It brings us on a journey with old, simple lessons of wisdom about love for humans and nature. It centers us in our fight against the monsters and storms that will strike us one day in the future. It teaches a child to be sympathetic, to be brave against hardship, to be hardworking, to discern what's good and what’s not beyond the outer appearance. That is the "childhood block" that we spend our days in. Childhood block, as explained in Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature by Deleuze and Guattari, is different from childhood memory. Childhood block places desires within the flow of time, it de-territorializes them and enhances the connections between childhood and other intensities of life.

The Red Balloons project is a perfect example of this concept. The new music materials of today did not erase the childhood connection of the animated films, but instead brought new aesthetic layers and artistic depths. The five films and the five corresponding performances moved both the children and the "old children" in the audience through different emotions, providing both joyous laughter and stunning surprises.

Bước Ngoặt

The program started with Bước Ngoặt (dir. Ngô Mạnh Lân, 1982). The new soundtrack was composed by contemporary classical artist Nguyễn Ngọc Tú and performed by Nguyễn Ngọc Tú and Ensemble (cello: Đào Tuyết Trinh, Phan Đỗ Phúc; violin: Nguyễn Thị Vân Hạnh; piano: Nguyễn Quỳnh Trang; piano, producer: Nguyễn Vinh). For a starter piece, it was quite a welcoming one, with classical instruments and a fable whose animation style resembled propaganda posters of Vietnam’s subsidy period — when the film showed a character doing a wheelie and smoking ostentatiously, I thought it seemed like a PSA against the dangers of motorcycle stunts and smoking, and I was right.

The sound of the electronic harp gently floated into the hall, creating a nostalgic atmosphere. While the playful piano and violin blended harmoniously with the film's tempo, the cello provided much-needed moments of tension to the film. At the climax, when the young man fell into the pit created by a demon, the soundtrack went dark and somber, subdued by the ambient background. But then what followed were bright, joyous notes — a signal indicating that wisdom and confidence would bring us back from the depth of the pit to the road to be steadier, stronger version of ourselves, our steps measured and calm in the gentle hum of the violin, filled with love for life.

Giấc Mơ Bay (Music by Minh Nguyễn and Đăng Tùng)

The performance by Minh Nguyễn and Đặng Tùng, two young artists from Hanoi's rock scene, for the film Giấc Mơ Bay was a shift to something more fresh and young. Tùng's gentle guitar work started filling up the space at the same time the humming sound of the projector signaled the beginning of the film. It was a beautiful start, not just among the performances of the night, but even among contemporary music pieces of Vietnam. Listening to the soft piano and the mellow guitar reverb, it's not hard to imagine that it would make a great beginning for a post-rock album, manifested entirely by the two artists.

Since this was a film with dialogue, the music took a backseat as the supporting role for the story, which was told from the point of view of a boy deep in reverie at his study desk on a rainy day. During the sequence where the boy explored heaven, the jubilant melody of the guitar and piano made tapping one's feet along with the music impossible to resist. The story was a lighthearted lesson about knowledge, accompanied by truly earnest music. The performance showed an appreciation, not only of the children, but also the inner child of older members of the audience. The two artists who redid the voices for the characters — the boy, the God, the Toad, the heavenly deities — also deserve high praise. Their work brought a crucial dose of humor into the film — even hardcore fans of absurdist humor would be surprised to hear the voice of these 21st-century youths in this film.

À! Ra Thế... (Music by Lý Trang)

Lý Trang, with the film À! Ra Thế…, delivered the most unique performance of the night. Her blend of clear electronic sounds with a concoction of noises as backdrop fit perfectly with the theme of the film. Succinct, suspenseful, and bold are the adjectives that come to mind when one talks about the experimental music of Lý Trang. The audience was drawn into the film’s dark atmosphere, with its ominous forest and enigmatic ambiance, only to be disoriented and shocked by the ending, which was brutal and yet somewhat poetic, drenched by the eerie laugh of the fox. This might not be an experience everyone can enjoy, but for children who are different, this might be the door leading them to a dark and mystical world — definitely a memorable journey. Drawing from her roots as a person of an ethnic minority, whose land is rich with the sounds of the forest and the mountain, Lý Trang's work demonstrated a different dimension of the familiar animated art form, showcasing a depth rarely seen in Vietnam’s contemporary music.

Sơn Tinh Thủy Tinh (Music by Junichi Usui and Trần Uy Đức)

When it comes to Sơn Tinh, Thủy Tinh, with the music performed by Junichi Usui and Trần Uy Đức, I admit that I can't comment much due to my lack of familiarity with folk music instruments. The talents of the two artists were undeniable. Still, in my subjective opinion, this segment did not match the rest of the program and was somewhat hard for the audience to get a grasp of. This is due to the film’s heavy mythological influences coupled with a soundtrack with the scope of elegant free jazz improvisation and layers of aggressive electronic sounds, not to mention the length — the performance reached a climax with a fantastic duet between woodwind instruments and the industrial-sounding percussion accompaniments. It does not offer simple lessons nor does it break away from the narrative fable form. However, the historical atmosphere of the film was painstakingly constructed. The two artists (and the Red Balloons project) made an excellent effort to delve into the layers of substance and aesthetic of classic Vietnamese animation, creating an "abnormal" experience for the audience, therefore subverting their expectations even at the very end.

Bản Nhạc Của Thỏ Trắng (Music by Tenkitsune)

For me, the most moving part of the night might have been Bản Nhạc Của Thỏ Trắng, with the performance of sound artist and producer Tenkitsune. I have not listened to the original soundtrack, but the new soundtrack Tenkitsune created for the film seemed to align with the music of contemporary animations. It was polished, yet bright and buoyant, which was most evident in the drum and bass and the exuberant melody of the music box. One surprise element came from the innocent, carefree reactions of young members of the audience, who laughed raucously at the upbeat music and the dancing characters. It was a rare, transcendental moment of joy. At the climax of the film, when White Rabbit tried to block the music notes from flying away, wanting to keep them to himself, Tenkitsune modulated the frequencies and distorted previously crystal-clear sounds in order to create a heavy, wilting atmosphere. With the end of the story approaching, White Rabbit learned the lesson of sharing, and the animal friends once again danced in happiness and peace. The music then became even more spirited, and so were the hearts of the audience. It was such beautiful, powerful music. We must learn to share that beauty.

What's the purpose of that? To connect, to let music live on forever — not just the classics, but also new musical materials of today and tomorrow — to impart its timeless values. I believe this is the message that the artists and curators of the program want to share with everyone. And I believe the message has been delivered, loud and clear.

Audience members, young and old, can momentarily return to the joy of watching the cartoons of their childhood. Photo by Nguyễn Đức Minh.

[Top photo: The musicians participating in Red Balloons/Vũ Đức]


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