Flight of the Red Balloon
Saturday, May 10, 2008
Hou's film is definitely for the art house crowd. There's no way his carefully measured pace and elliptical storytelling could ever hold a mall theater crowd's attention. That's not a dis on mainstream audiences or mainstream films but rather an acknowledgement that different people have different tastes. I think it's important for people to have a sense of what they are getting into when they go to a particular film because going in with the wrong set of expectations could mean that you'll leave the theater disappointed and unwilling to experiment again. So while I urge any lover of film to see any of Hou's films, I also want people to know that he is not a filmmaker who will hold your hand and lead you to obvious conclusions. You have to participate in his films to find their subtle meanings. So while I wish I could convince more people to sample the exquisite craft of Hou, I realize that many filmgoers would probably leave Flight of the Red Balloon scratching their heads and wondering why Hou is such a critic's darling. That being said I simply adore his work.
Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsaio-Hsien (IFC Films)
Hou, who has only worked outside of his native Taiwan on one occasion for the Tokyo-based Caf e Lumiere , was asked to make a film in France and decided to make Flight of the Red Balloon , a tribute to Albert Lamorisse's short French film Le Ballon Rouge. That award-winning 1950s short followed a little boy through the city of Paris as he tried to catch an elusive red balloon. Hou says that in preparing to make his film, he also looked to the book Paris to the Moon by American Adam Gopnik. In the press notes, Hou says he appreciated the fact that Gopnik, like Hou, was an outsider observing Paris. From that book, Hou says he discovered the children's toy called "The Machine for Drawing the World;" that pinball machines are in Parisian caf es; and about the game on the merry-go-round in the Jardin de Luxembourg. All of which has ended up in some way or other in his film. Locations that he chooses also relate to important moments in French history - referencing the Bastille, the French Revolution, and more. So Hou's film gracefully gives us a tour of Paris even if we don't realize it.
In making Flight of the Red Balloon , Hou says he wanted to tap into some of the things that he felt were in Lamorisse's film, most notably showing the realities of Paris, capturing the city's ambience as well as its social structure and make up. Under the guise of a children's fantasy film, Lamorisse was able to gently explore the realities of Paris in 1956. So Hou puts his subtle skills to work to do the same for Paris in the new millennium.
Hou's film opens with a boy's voice over a black screen. Then we see of little Simon (Simon Iteanu), who's climbing a railing trying to grasp the string of a brilliant red balloon that remains tantalizingly out of grasp. Simon proceeds home and the balloon follows. As Hou's camera moves through the city, he maintains an observer's distance as he takes in all the bustle of this cosmopolitan city. He also finds items in the frame that will remind us of the things he wants us to keep in mind. So there's a poster for Children of Men to remind us this is a film about children; and red doors and objects as well as big dots on the side of a bus to remind us of the balloon even when it is out of frame.
Simon and his mother (Juliette Binoche) in Flight of the Red Balloon (IFC Films)
Then we meet Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), Simon's mother. Hou introduces us to her voice first as she is providing the narration for a puppet show based on a Chinese folk tale about Zhang Yu, a very persistent scholar who tries to boil away the ocean to retrieve his beloved Qiong Lian. Suzanne's highly animated voice immediately engages us. We discover that she is in need of a nanny to look after Simon while she's at work. So she hires Song (Fang Song), a Taiwanese film student.
The first time Simon and Song head off together, Song inquires if he's seen the movie The Red Balloon . She explains that she wants to make a movie about a red balloon too, and she even stops to film a painted red balloon on the wall. Later we find out that Suzanne had actually watched a film Song had made and was moved by it because it reminded her of her own childhood. There's not a distinct plot in conventional terms. We see Suzanne dealing with the strain of a husband who's always away, financial pressures and neighbors that she would rather do without. But all this flows as part of daily life, there's no build up to a dramatic climax. Instead, this is a film made up of tiny, sublime moments. A shot as simple as Suzanne climbing over the mess in her apartment beautifully sums up the obstacles and emotional mess in her life. Or the way a neighbor coming to ask to borrow a pot, has to explain everything about the entire meal before getting to the simple request reveals the round about way that Hou too is telling us his story.
Hou contrasts long fluid tracking shots of activity on the Paris streets with the more confined shots within the tiny, cluttered apartment of Suzanne. As he observes the lives of these characters he paints a portrait of today's Paris, a place that seems far more multi-cultural than the one of Lamorisse's Paris in 1956. We also see the new reality for kids whose parents work and who are looked after by others or play video games and pinball. But through an accumulation of small, seemingly trivial moments, Hou builds a story about how people are connected - be it through work, family, art or mere physical proximity.
Song and Simon in Flight of the Red Balloon (IFC Films)
The film also delivers a sly comment on art and artists. There's a lovely scene where Song is trying to edit her Red Balloon film on a computer in the apartment and just outside the window, the red balloon that has been following Simon seems to be observing her, maybe even trying to get her attention. But her intense commitment to creating her work of art makes her miss a truly magical moment happening right outside the window. Then later, Simon is on a school field trip at the Mus ee d'Orsay where a teacher prompts the students to consider F elix Vallotton's 1899 painting of a child chasing a red ball, Le Ballon . As the teacher and the children focus on trying to interpret the art, Simon looks up to see the red balloon hovering above a skylight. Once again, Hou seems to be prompting us to consider both life and art, and the connection between the two.
In a film that feels so unstructured, these scenes reveal how much craft and structure actually go into Hou's films, how he endows his film with such meticulous layering of themes and ideas. So we have the red balloon not only reflected in windows and glass throughout the city, but Lamorisse's film itself is being reflected upon by Hou as well as Song. We're also reminded that Lamorisse's film could be considered a reflection of Vallotton's painting. That's what's so wonderful about Hou's films, the more you think about them, the more connections and ideas you will find. If you only casually glance at the surface, then his films will appear formless and lacking in compelling content. But if you are will to participate and seek out meaning, you will be richly rewarded.
Binoche gives one of her most engaging and vivid performances as Suzanne. If Song is an anchor of calm, Suzanne is like a tornado ripping through and leaving chaos and disarray wherever she goes. But it's not her fault, it's just her nature. Binoche's Suzanne is filled with good intentions and a desire to make things work out but she just seems overwhelmed by life. She always seems pulled in twenty directions at once and only seems able to focus her attention when she's performing. Then all that frantic energy, melodrama and emotion are channeled into her art. Binoche's performance feels vibrantly real and natural.
Flight of the Red Balloon (unrated and in French with English subtitles) is a film that is difficult to describe because it is so deliciously cinematic. It exists so much through color, mood, tone, movement, and image. Hou's manner of telling his story is what defines his films and makes them uniquely his own.
Companion viewing: The Red Balloon, Caf e Lumiere, Flowers of Shanghai, The Puppetmaster