Movie Review: Flight of the Red Balloon (French w/e.s.t.)
By Michael Phillips, Tribune Movie Critic
It sounds cliched, as does the nature of the film itself, but "Flight of the Red Balloon" is a gem made by a filmmaker who loves life, and knows how to capture its ebb and flow and sweet complication.
This quiet, patient masterwork comes from the Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao Hsien, here exploring two foreign territories: modern-day Paris, and the storybook Paris represented by the 1956 classic "The Red Balloon," in which Albert Lamorisse delivered a hardy fable of childhood resistance. Juliette Binoche stars in "Flight of the Red Balloon," but this is not a star vehicle. It is, rather, proof that largely improvised story, characters and dialogue can be approached with the kind of visual rigor and humanistic touch only a handful of contemporary cinema artists have to offer.
Be warned: Many viewers of the film, which premiered last year at the Cannes Film Festival and then made its North American debut at the Toronto festival, have been known to struggle with its rhythm. (The film is also available via pay-per-view on cable TV.) While he works in many styles and keys, Hou is a patient man, and he does not jam his subjects into the usual story "beats " or a conventional narrative. His films, at least the several I've seen, work like music. "Three Times," a fantastic trio of love stories enacted by the same performers, is a sort of symphony of longing. "Flight of the Red Balloon" proceeds as a chamber piece of unusual lightness, its tinge of melancholy truly earned and never forced.
Like his earlier film "The Puppetmaster," "Flight of the Red Balloon" concerns artists who work with puppets and whose lives feed on theatrical artifice. The superlative Binoche plays Suzanne, who lives in a Paris flat with her preteen son, Simon (Simon Iteanu). She runs a puppet theater while running her life in perpetual whirlwind mode. Her lover is away in Montreal and may or may not be coming back.
Meantime a new nanny has arrived. She is Song (Song Fang), a filmmaking student from Taiwan, who turns her camera on her new city, recording footage recalling "The Red Balloon" (directly referenced throughout, without ever becoming a crutch). Like Simon she is a gentle soul, contrasting mightily with the blowsy Suzanne, who creates little storm patterns of chaos in whatever room she's just come into.
Much of the film, lit with a subtle shimmer by cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing, is photographed in the apartment building as various workaday characters come and go: a piano teacher, a pair of piano movers, a solicitor helping Suzanne figure out what to do about her deadbeat tenants downstairs (one of whom may be an ex-lover). We learn bits of these characters' backgrounds, and in delicately woven flashback Hou's film shows us Simon with his stepsister, who comes to visit every summer. Such scenes are not mined for their sentimental value; they're simply there to show us a fuller picture of one boy's life.
Like another little boy from another generation, this one's followed by a red balloon, bobbing in and out of the picture. Four shots into "Flight of the Red Balloon," Hou's camera shows us the balloon waiting on a train platform for its new charge, like a surrogate nanny. It sounds too cute by half, but there's such grace and wit in the extended shot's timing and composition, you know you're in a craftsman's good hands. Plenty of well-meaning filmmakers advertise emotion without contextualizing it. Hou, whose latest film feels to me like a masterpiece responding intuitively to a masterpiece, is too busy observing the world to bother with advertising a single moment of what floats by.
No MPAA rating: (parents cautioned for some language).
Running time: 1:55.
Opening: Friday at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.
Starring: Juliette Binoche (Suzanne); Simon Iteanu (Simon); Song Fang (Song); Louise Margolin (Louise).
Directed by Hou Hsiao Hsien; written by Hou and Francois Margolin, inspired by Albert Lamorisse's film "The Red Balloon"; photographed by Mark Lee Ping Bing; edited by Liao Ching Sung and Jean-Christophe Hym; produced by Margolin and Kristina Larsen. An IFC Films release.