23 April 2008

Flight of the Red Balloon

Directed by: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Written by: Hou Hsiao-Hsien & François Margolin
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: B+

In Flight of the Red Balloon (Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge), Hou Hsiao-Hsien, like many a “foreign” filmmaker before him, abandons any and all clichés of moviemaking—that is, the tried and true conventions of Hollywood storytelling—in favor of something…pure? Simple? Fresh? His manner is gentle—the film begins in silence, and the soft murmurs of traffic slowly fade in—but the end result here is oppressive; set mostly in a cramped and cluttered apartment or in the narrow, shaded streets of Paris, Red Balloon largely keeps us tethered to the quotidian, making the audience feel like its star, the vividly frazzled, strung-out-on-stress Juliette Binoche. From an early shot through a moving subway train’s windshield, Hou informs us that, in today’s hectic world, Westerners are always, exhaustingly, pushing forward.

But, in contrast, he digs out life’s balloonality, the occasional, floatingly graceful respites from the taxing everyday: playing pinball in a café, collecting newspapers and empty bottles from an apartment floor, grabbing brass rings while riding a carousel horse. Captured through Hou’s lens, these small moments take on a nimble, empyrean elegance, one paralleled by the film’s titular red balloon. In contrast to the perpetually plowing ahead Binoche, the too-infrequently featured, free flying balloon floats upward and bobs back and forth. It is a piece of Eastern enlightenment that, like Hou, has drifted across the Urals into France. In the hands of a lesser director, shots of a floating balloon could fall into pretension, a la American Beauty’s “beautiful” plastic bag, or, even worse, it could be voiced by Eddie Murphy. In Hou’s hands, however, it really might be the most beautiful thing in Paris—his version of it anyway.

Flight of the Red Balloon is a self-described homage to, rather than a remake of, the French children’s-classic. It is a slice of life, sans much of a narrative arc, the story of single-mother Binoche as she takes puppetry lessons and raises her sweet son Simon Iteanu, with the help of immigrant nanny Song Fang, whose French, like mine, extends little beyond a polite “d’accord”. (As an Asian transplant and a filmmaker with a thing for red balloons—and Lamorisse’s film—she clearly seems a stand-in for Hou.)

Throughout the film, Hou places an emphasis on shadows—the balloon’s, the carousel horses’, Iteanu’s sisters’. His film is a contrast of light and dark, of East and West, of happiness and sadness, best represented in a serendipitously discovered painting in the Musée d'Orsay, awash in accidental symbolism, of a boy chasing a red balloon, his parents only visible in the far distance. (The film was commissioned by the museum, whose one requirement was that a scene be set there.) Bionche loves her son, but she’s a frantically upending presence, persistently panting and constantly disrupting the calm tableau of domesticity that Song has constructed for Iteanu, invading her Eastern tranquility with her Western neuroticism.

Binoche usually seems dissociated from her son’s life; when her friend asks Iteanu where she is, he replies, “probably tied up with her puppets.” At one point, she is yelling at, presumably, the boy’s father. “There’s no one beside me!” she shouts. “What about me?” the boy asks. (Hou, to his credit, plays out that last exchange quasi-comically.) So when the balloon hangs in the family’s flat’s window, watching the boy and his nanny prepare crepes, it seems to directly parallel an earlier scene of Binoche spying on her son and daughter playing in their living room. And then the first scene makes sense: Iteanu tries to coax the balloon down to his level, but it refuses and he gives up. It is a rejection from Hou to surrender his film’s ability to literally rise above the mundane, but also a rejection of the boy by his mother.

The balloon, then, is Binoche, or the balloon is God, the balloon is the viewer; all three might be true, specifically, but that’s too literal, an imposition of the prosaic onto the poetic; in a more general sense, the balloon is a merely a touch of the ethereal, so close and yet, with the characters’ heads so low to the ground, always just out of reach. It also functions as a means of cultural exchange, the object that allows Hou, the foreigner, to invade the West with his particular brand of meditative filmmaking. Too bad that style of filmmaking just doesn’t quite translate. In its own way, Flight of the Red Balloon is as exhausting in its languor as the febrile culture Hou seems to criticize.

Watch the trailer:

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