Imagination, patience and an appreciation of the unfamiliar will come in handy for American audiences fortunate enough to find themselves confronted with the latest creation from Taiwan-based filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Imagine, first of all, a world in which motion pictures are commissioned by great museums rather than green lighted by studio bean counters. It sounds like something that could happen only on another planet or in a work of utopian fantasy but this is, in fact, how “The Flight of the Red Balloon” came to be made.
Much of the world over, Hou is considered a modern master with a style distinguished by a gift for poetic realism. If you happen upon “Café Lumière,” “Flowers of Shanghai,” “Millennium Mambo” or “The Puppetmaster” in the Foreign Language section of your local video store, do yourself a favor: Don’t leave without them. On the basis of his reputation, the Musée d’Orsay contacted the director and asked him to produce a movie based on Albert Lamorisse’s classic 1956 children’s short “The Red Balloon,” a work which he himself had never seen.
The result is a singular cinematic experience. As in Lamorisse’s film, we’re introduced to a young French boy (here, seven year old Simon Iteanu) who for some reason appears to be without friends his own age. He spots a bright crimson dot bobbing above the Paris streets and pleads for it to come to him. The new picture departs from the old one in that Simon gives up and goes home as opposed to wandering through the city with a round playmate as did the tot in the original.
Hou recasts the plastic sphere, in fact. Rather than that of mystical companion, it plays the role of free floating, sentient metaphor. In his film, the balloon follows the boy home and appears to regard his daily life from various vantage points out of his line of sight. Is it a guardian angel? Does it stand for the joy just out of reach? It could be God for all we know and the enigma only adds to the movie’s magical quality.
Though there’s nothing fantastic or fairy tale-like about this boy’s life. His best friend is his Playstation. He spends most of his time in the care of his nanny, a young film student named Song Fang, who is in reality a young filmmaker who studied under Hou and is named Song Fang. One of the director’s several trippy touches: Fang is herself working on a remake of “The Red Balloon” on digital video throughout the movie.
Simon’s mother, Suzanne, is played by Juliette Binoche. The actress gives a let-it-rip performance as a scattered bohemian whose life is in as big a mess as her cramped, cluttered apartment. The director of a puppet theatre, she juggles rehearsals for a new show based on a story from the Yuan Dynasty, raising a son with little help from her husband who is in Montreal, ostensibly working on a novel, efforts to convince her older daughter to return from a prolonged visit with grandparents in Belgium and legal maneuvering required for eviction of a deadbeat tenant so her daughter will have a place to stay. She smokes too much and is always stepping over empty wine bottles but her devotion to her son is total.
It’s a chaotic, vastly credible piece of acting, all the more remarkable for the fact that Hou made the entire movie without a script, or rather with a script which didn’t include a word of dialogue. Following discussions with the director, each of the actors was called upon to create their own lines, scene by scene. Now there’s a guy who knows how to delegate.
What you see on screen is every bit as extraordinary as the way in which it got there. The story is minimal and the pacing unhurried but, even at just under two hours, there isn’t a frame that doesn’t contain something fascinating. Images of lyrical beauty alternate with slices of big city hustle-bustle and, throughout, the mysterious sphere pops up in a hundred unexpected visual echoes––a painting on the side of a building, a red pouch of a backpack, a stop light, a red Jetta shot from just the right angle, orbs of refracted light.
The movie closes with a scene shot at the Musée d’Orsay. Simon and his classmates are gathered before the Felix Vallotton painting “The Balloon” (yes, it’s red) and their teacher asks whether they think it is a happy painting or a sad painting. In it, a child pursues the elusive object, eternally just beyond its grasp. “It’s both,” one of the kids answers, and that’s true of “The Flight of the Red Balloon” too. Life’s miracles and its messiness, its delights and its disappointments are evoked with quiet virtuosity in this homage which is itself a cause for celebration.