About a thousand movies ago, I made the truculent, unprovable assertion that if Chinese grandmaster Hou Hsiao-hsien were French, he'd be a household name. Now the moment of truth arrives with Hou's Flight of the Red Balloon — set in Paris, starring Juliette Binoche, and inspired by Albert Lamorisse's classic kid flick about the friendship between a lonely boy and a curiously sentient crimson inflatable.
The Red Balloon was the arthouse E.T. of 1956. Flight of the Red Balloon is something far more baffling — a literal-minded movie with an amiably free-floating metaphor. Hou, who screened The Red Balloon only after he was commissioned to remake it by the Musée d'Orsay, has said the Lamorisse film shows the "cruel realities" of childhood. His own version begins as fantasy — as 7-year-old Simon (Simon Iteanu) addresses the otherwise unnoticed scarlet sphere drifting overhead — and then naturalizes, tracking the boy over the roofs of Paris to contemplate the untidy existence he shares with his mother, Suzanne (Binoche).
Almost immediately, the balloon's role is assumed by the Chinese film student Song (Song Fang) hired to look after Simon. A would-be guardian angel, she hovers in the boy's vicinity before locating the studio where Suzanne is rehearsing her new, Chinese-inspired puppet show. Like the balloon, Song is round-faced and benign, a preternaturally calm, solitary, self-contained observer. She is also like Hou in that she, too, is a foreigner remaking The Red Balloon, albeit in DV. Unlike him, however, she's fluent in French.
Launched at the same Cannes Film Festival that premiered Wong Kar-wai's first non-Chinese-language movie, My Blueberry Nights, Flight of the Red Balloon was as tepidly received by French critics as My Blueberry Nights was by Americans. But where Wong facilely filtered the alien terrain of Soho and Reno through his own distinctive lens, Hou appears to have accepted his distance from the material — and worked with it. Flight of the Red Balloon is explicitly an outsider's movie, full of odd perspectives and founded on dislocation.
As though shooting a silent, Hou wrote a script without dialogue — then discussed each scene with his actors, who had to invent their own lines. This surely accounts for Simon's diffidence as well as Binoche's splendiferous eccentricity. Where actual film student Song Fang essentially plays herself, Binoche was compelled to invent the theatrical character Suzanne. The movie is animated not only by the hide-and-seek antics of the red balloon but also by her extravagant turn as a frazzled performance artist. Played with total self-absorption and a corresponding absence of vanity, Suzanne is a harried composition in frowsy blonditude, filmy scarves, and mad décolletage — the most dynamic female protagonist in the Hou oeuvre.
Let's call her the spirit of the place. Paris apartments are cluttered, Parisian lives are messy, the city is shown so congested you can smell the exhaust fumes. To cope, Hou himself has adapted a looser, more lyrical style — using window reflections and shallow focus to layer and otherwise complicate the image. A movie that encourages the spectator to rummage, Flight of the Red Balloon is contemplative but never static, and punctuated by passages of pure cinema. A medley of racing shadows turns out to be cast by a merry-go-round. A long consideration of the setting sun as reflected on a train window that frames the onrushing landscape yields a sudden flood of light. There's a relaxed interest in backstage technique — the yet-to-be-erased techie visible in Song's film, a puppeteer's hidden "dance" in Suzanne's performance, the use of the end credits as a coda to the movie.
Suzanne's interest in Chinese marionettes links Hou's Red Balloon (as well as the original) to his 1992 masterpiece, The Puppetmaster. The mode can be offhandedly self-reflexive, as when Hou's camera ponders the virtuosity of two movers maneuvering a piano up an impossibly narrow stairway, or in the melancholy juxtaposition of archaic 8mm home movies with Suzanne's voiceover characterizations. Her vocalizations are crucial: Not only does she provide the voices for her puppets, but also much of the backstory, explicated over the course of two emotional telephone solos — one brilliantly staged behind the light-struck windshield of a moving car, the other played in total domestic chaos, complete with a blind piano tuner going about his business. Typically, Hou's narrative rhythms allow for long periods in which nothing much happens, followed by a cascade of overlapping information. Abruptly it's revealed that Suzanne, who has inherited two tiny flats, wants to get rid of her deadbeat tenant so that her grown daughter can move in downstairs.
Suzanne's situation may be an emotional jumble but, untethered by mundane reality, the balloon is free to roam — variously appearing as an image on the side of a building, a painting at the Musée d'Orsay, a character in Song's movie, and itself, suddenly visible through a skylight, "watching" Song learning how to make crepes. In her last scene, Song — or rather her reflection — shares the screen with the balloon's shadow, its mirrored image, and finally its fleeting presence as it soars up and away, out of the story.
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