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FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON (Voyage du ballon rouge, Le)(director/writer: Hou Hsiao-hsien; screenwriters: François Margolin/inspired by the 1956 film “The Red Balloon” by Albert Lamorisse; cinematographer: Mark Lee Ping Bing; editors: Liao Ching Sung/Jean-Christophe Hym; cast: Juliette Binoche (Suzanne), Simon Iteanu (Simon), Song Fang (Song), Hippolyte Girardot (Marc), Louise Margolin (Louise), Anna Sigalevitch (Anna); Runtime: 113; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: François Margolin/Kristina Larsen; IFC First Take; 2007-France-in French with English subtitles)
“A winsome homage to Albert Lamorisse’s classic children’s fantasy short film of 1956 The Red Balloon.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s (“Café Lumière”/”The Puppetmaster”/”Three Times”) first European production is a winsome homage to Albert Lamorisse’s classic children’s fantasy short film of 1956 The Red Balloon. It was commissioned by Paris’s Musée d’Orsay. The lyrical, minimalist, slice of city life film takes us on a tour of a lonely child’s everyday Paris life, as a red balloon coveted by the child floats adrift in the Paris skies only to constantly come back to him but at a distance he can’t reach. The out-of-reach red balloon becomes the film’s metaphor (evoking a carefree childlike attitude of freedom to go wherever the wind takes it that many urban adults have lost in their mature years) and is enough of an event for the master filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien to use his genius to weave an observant story about family relations and how the past can be haunting. It’s a restrained bittersweet film shot in a similar style as the great filmmaker Ozu by using the same slow moving camerawork to tell its simplistic realistic family dynamic story but is coated in the strange abstract images of modern everyday life that offer in a subtle way some profound insights into the human condition.

The adolescent Simon (Simon Itaneau) is the quiet, adorable son of the harried single mom Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), who runs a small avant-garde puppet theater and performs all the voices. She is currently putting on a show about a Chinese character who tries to boil the ocean to retrieve his beloved. Suzanne’s estranged writer lover Pierre is living in Montreal to work on a novel and is probably gone for good. Pierre’s user friend Marc (Hippolyte Girardot) has moved with his girlfriend into the downstairs room of what used to be Suzanne’s mother’s house, and has failed to meet his responsibilities in paying the rent and refuses to leave the premises. Suzanne wants him out so she can lodge in that space her estranged teenage daughter Louise (Louise Margolin), who is seen only in flashback living in Brussels with her ailing maternal grandfather, a puppeteer like Suzanne, and usually spends summers in Paris. She’s only a pretend sister to Simon, who never mentions who is his real father.

When we first meet the always rushed Suzanne, she’s picking up Simon as school lets out and introduces him to his new part-time nanny, Song Fang. She’s a Beijing film student at the university and is shooting a film about red balloons on her hand-held digital camera as an homage to Lamorisse’s film. In no time at all the pleasant Song becomes part of Suzanne’s extended family and acquaintances, and she bonds quite well with the easy-going neglected Simon who loves his PlayStation, playing pinball, Charles Aznavour songs and has no problem puttering around the house on his own.

There’s hardly a story here or much dramatic fireworks, but instead the film has a riveting sense of rhythm, offers many visual treats and as a mood piece takes us on a splendidly gentle ride through a bumpy family situation as it tries to creatively get at the interiors of the damaged single mom who means well but only seems to be at peace and control of her life when giving voice to her puppets.

The film though grounded in the everyday realities of life, nevertheless has an otherworld look to it at times. There are many scenes that resound like poetry and show us that there’s a lot going on with the caring but guilt-ridden confused mom that eludes her because she can’t take the time to sit back and reflect on things. But the main life lessons are reserved for the hard to gauge Simon, who receives piano lessons and in one scene attends a museum lecture with his class and is told by the guide how to view the great artist Félix Vallotton’s 1899 painting ‘The Balloon.’ I think Hou Hsiao-hsien, who takes the stance of the detached outsider wise man, would also like us to view his exceptional film in the same light as one would Vallotton’s painting or in the penetrating cinematic way of the young filmmaker who is shooting a film with the free-spirited Simon in it walking around Paris with a red balloon.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”