Flight of the Red Balloon (Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge), first part in a new series of films produced by Musée d’Orsay, tells the story of a French family as seen through the eyes of a Chinese student. The film was shot in August and September 2006 on location in Paris. This is Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s first western film. It is based on the classic French short The Red Balloon directed by Albert Lamorisse. Flight of the Red Balloon is one of those movies where nothing much happens. It’s a simple, relatively peaceful film, notable in part because director Hou Hsao-Hsien is shooting outside Asia for the first time. Hou’s starting point–dictated by Paris’s Musee d’Orsay, which commissioned the film–is La Ballon Rouge, the 1956 Albert Lamorisse film about a little boy and his companion in the streets of Paris, a floating red balloon.
Hou’s on-screen surrogate for his entree to Western filmmaking is Song, a Chinese film student in Paris working as a nanny to a young boy, Simon. (She’s also shooting a movie on the streets of Paris involving a red balloon, and has Simon take part.) Simon’s mother is Suzanne, played with great eccentricity and anxiousness by Juliette Binoche, sporting a shock of blond hair atop an intense, friendly but largely unhappy face. Suzanne works in a puppet theater (a fairly explicit reference to one of Hou’s previous films, The Puppetmasters) and lives alone with Simon in a cluttered apartment. The place downstairs is hers, too, but the tenants–friends of her estranged husband–have stopped paying rent. She’s eager to throw them out not only because she expects her older daughter will soon need a place to stay in Paris, but also because the couple is, to her mind anyway, ill-mannered, untidy, and inconsiderate.That’s it in a nutshell. Working to some degree in improvisational mode, Hou doesn’t generate a lot of narrative, but his images–emphasizing the quality of light passed through windows, or reflected in glass–are masterful and riveting. At times the visual strategy reminded me of Kieslowski, but then there’s something less structured and more free about Hou’s style. Kieslowski’s French-language films were insistent in their beauty, aggressive in their mystery. But nothing in Red Balloon feels especially calculated, or even pre-meditated. Instead, Hou pulls off the illusion that he’s just working the camera and the screen space verité-style, trying to get the best angle on Suzanne’s unfolding personal crisis, on Simon’s young sense of wonder, on Song’s tranquil face, lurking around the margins of every scene, sometimes with a camcorder in hand–as always, the filmmaker as tourist, spectator and eavesdropper. She’s also a surrogate mother here: she’s shooting a film, on DV, about a red balloon floating through the streets of Paris, and she has involved Simon in the picture. A quick glance around the net shows that many viewers have been frustrated, angered even, by the film’s languors. I can understand that it would seem little more than a pretty, exceptionally well-crafted trifle if not for the presence of Binoche, whose single mom is a credible, sympathetic creation. It’s a wholly un-selfconscious performance that sneaks up on you until Hou and Binoche both let ‘er rip in a couple of key scenes where Suzanne jabbers helplessly into her cell phone–that symbol of simultaneous connectivity and disconnectedness–her feelings of lonesomeness and abandonment palpable enough almost to transform Red Balloon into tragedy.
But then there’s Simon, learning piano and growing street-smart, building up his understanding of the world around him even as he wonders at the benevolence of the bright red balloon that appears to him through a skylight in the film’s concluding scene. For the balloon’s continued presence, he must have Song to thank; she delivered an element of magic that Suzanne was unequipped to provide. It’s a wonder that Suzanne surely understands–she seems like the type to remember what it felt like to be a child–even if she’s at an age where she knows a bit too much about how the world works to share in that wonder. Flight of the Red Balloon is a little bit happy and a little bit sad, a high-angle view on childhood in the sunlight and adulthood in the shadows, with the much-longed-for consummation of the heart’s yearnings floating on the breeze just out of reach.
A highlight at the 2007 Cannes, Toronto and New York film festivals, FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON is the latest masterpiece from Hou Hsiao Hsien (CAFE, LUMIERE, THREE TIMES). Inspired by Albert Lamorisse*s 1956 Academy Award Winning classic, THE RED BALLOON, Hou expands on its key elements-a young boy, a red balloon and Paris- to weave an achingly beautiful tale on the mysteries of familial bonds and the lingering effects the past has on us all. A precious young boy, Simon (Simon Iteanu) must deal with the increasing fragility of his mother, the loving yet preoccupied Suzanne (Academy
Award Winner Juliette Binoche of THE ENGLISH PATIENT, CACHE). Completely immersed in her own tribulations, Suzanne hires Song (Song Fan), a Taiwanese film student, to help care for Simon. Together with Song, a unique extended family is formed, utterly interdependent yet lost in separate thoughts and dreams mirrored by a delicate, shiny red balloon.
1.65GB | 1h 55m | 1024×560 | mkv