Flight of the Red Balloon: Hou Hsiao Hsien’s Tributeto French Classic

Le voyage du ballon rouge (Taiwan-France)

Cannes Film Fest 2007 (Opening Night, Certain Regard)–Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao Hsien’s second foray into a foreign language turf, “The Flight of the Red Balloon” (inspired by the classic 1956 French film “The Red Balloon”) is more successful than his first one, the Tokyo-set “Cafe Lumiere,” which was an artistic disappointment.

Hou’s “Cafe Lumiere” and the new work are linked thematically, dealing with the hustle and bustle of life in big metropolitan centers.  However, both lack the richer texture, more intriguing subtext, and subtler poetic mood of his more indigenous works, half of which were shown in Cannes Film Festival, including his 1998 masterpiece, “Flowers of Shanghai.”

“Flight of the Red Balloon” is the first film in a series initiated by Serge Lemoine, the president of Paris’ Musee d’Orsay, in conjunction with the museum’s 20th anniversary. The idea behind the project is to bring together contemporary artists in this case, world-class filmmakers–and the Museum’s Impressionist of Art Nouveau treasures. The terms are rather simple: The museum must be present either throughout the film, or just one scene. (Hou opts for the latter).

The above condition serves as a starting point for Hou’ new picture, which is more of a tribute to Albert Lamorrisse’s 1956 “The Red Balloon,” an half an hour film that has assumed the status of a classic in world cinema for a variety of reason. Lamorisse’s poetic film revolves around a young boy who’s affectionately followed around Paris by a mysterious red balloon.

Similarly, “Flight of Red Balloon” begins with a young boy named Simon, standing outside a subway station in Paris, talking to a red balloon in an effort to make it come down. The balloon, of course, has a will of its own, and it begins to fly very gracefully, going up and down, across Paris’ rooftops.

In the first scene, the red balloon plays a starring role, after which the director demotes it to a cameo (in a manner of speaking), with periodic appearances in the course of the narrative, sort of a reminder and more of a stylistic device. At the very last scene, the red balloon is again cast in a lead role, and the camera tracks it in a long shot that concludes the film on a lovely, nostalgic note, since it brings back memories of the old beloved movie.

Nonetheless, what was touching and engaging in the half an hour French film is extended to a full-length drama with a two-hour running time, which is a problem since the main story is slender and there’s hardly any plot to speak of.

From the red balloon, and mostly outdoor scenes, the helmer makes a rough cut to a dark interior, in which a rehearsal for a new puppet show, written and vocalized by Suzanne (Juliette Binoche, lovely as ever), who’s Simon’s mother. Suzanne is a puppeteer who uses her vocal talents to bring life to the shows that she writes.

At first, it seems that Suzanne is a woman completely absorbed in her art and career, but gradually, a routine family melodrama unfolds, centering on a single mother of two, Simon and an older sister, who went through a bad divorce and is now struggling with her multi-tasking as an artist, mother, and landlord too.

We never meet her former husband, but we get the impression that he’s not terribly involved in the children’s lives, that most of the burden falls upon Suzanne’s frail shoulders, and that in order to support herself, she rents an apartment to a young couple who lives downstairs. Overwhelmed by “the complications of modern life” (which was also the motif of “Cafe Lumiere”), Suzanne hires Song Fan (Song Fang), a young, sensitive Taiwanese film student in Paris as Simon’s nanny, to take care of his needs, pick him up from school, cook for him, oversee his piano lessons and mostly keep a companion to an inquisitive, precocious and very lonely boy.

As a screen character, Suzanne is an overly familiar type, terribly busy, easily distracted, slightly emotionally unstable, and hysterical, too. She’s a woman that, while used to be running around and dealing with daily (and hourly) crises, is also likely to burst into tears, immediately followed by laughter, and vice versa. If “Flight of the Red Balloon” had humor, the way Pedro Almodovar would have handled the same material, it could have been retitled, “Woman on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown.” But Hou plays the drama straight and serious.

Main locale is Suzanne’s small, messy, cramped apartment, which becomes like a “social salon” through which a gallery of colorful characters passes by. The young couple that live downstairs come and go as they please, and they use the tiny kitchen to cook their own meals. There’s a lovely, funny moment, when Suzanne decides to relax for a second and have tea with Song, except she can’t use the kitchen because it’s already occupied by her ungrateful tenants.

Among the other passers-by are Suzanne’s friend-lawyer, who tries to advise when the tenants stop paying rent; Simon’s piano teacher; porters who bring a new piano for Simon (and complain about physical injuries and other occupational hazards, which reps the film’s only humorous scene), and a blind guy who comes to tune in the piano. At one point, Simon is taking a piano lesson (which we only hear), while half a dozen people quite noisily come in and out of the tiny, cluttered flat.

Most disappointing is Hou’s problematic approach to the old French feature, which he obviously admires. That 1956 work was a lyrical and metaphorical film showing Paris’ ambience, and the social system of the time, with the balloon functioning as a motif representing freedom, since the protag was a boy suffering from all kinds of constraints. It’s fair to say that Hou’s film is inspired by and pays tribute to the French picture, but fails to use the balloon in any significant way, literal or symbolic.

Speaking of motifs, it may or may not be conscious, but, like Kieslowski’s “Red” (part of his “Color” trilogy, in which Juliette Binoche played the lead of the “Blue” segment), almost every scene has a red object or item in it, and in one scene Binoche sports a hot-red dress.

Hou has always been good with his mobile camera, and here, for long stretches of time, he follows Song and Simon as they walk around Paris, sit on park benches, stop at a candy store, and visit Suzanne at her puppet theater.

Hou’s reliable and talented cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing again shows his penchant for long, often lyrical takes, trying to convey the routine rhythms of everyday life in Paris, which refreshingly are accompanied by natural sounds, street noise, traffic, people talking in coffee shops.

The gifted and versatile Binoche gives a commanding performance as the overworked mom, trying to juggle career and family with no help from her former husband. Deliberately deglamorized, everything about Binoche is careless and frazzled, from the unkempt blond hair to her wrinkled costumes. Taken to sharp mood swings, Binoche’s Suzanne is screaming one moment on the phone, graceful with the Chinese nanny a moment later, and then joyously cheerful and ultra-sensitive with Simon, trying to compensate for her neglectful conduct.

As noted above, there were conditions to this film project, and Hou fulfills them by setting the last reel within the Musee d’Orsay, where a group of children is getting quite an insightful lecture about a painting with a red balloon in cinematic terms of perspective, angle, and POV.

Hou pays tribute not only to “The Red Balloon” and French films but also to his own work and cinema in general. A film student, Song describes the 1956 film to Simon (and the audience), and she walks around with a video camera, shooting random street scenes, occasionally recording Simon’s gestures. The sequence of the Chinese puppeteer show brings to mind Hou’s own 1993 “The Puppet Master,” which won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes Festival.

Cast

Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) Simon (Simon Iteanu) Song Fang (Song Fang) Suzanne’s tenants (Hippolyte Girardot and Louise Margolin)

Credits

Running time: 115 Minutes.

A BAC Films release (in France) of a 3H Prods. (Taiwan)/Margo Films, Les Films du Lendemain (France) presentation, in co-production with Arte France Cinema, in partnership with Le Musee d’Orsay, with the support of La Region Ile de France, with the participation of Canal Plus, CineCinema, La Sofica Poste Image, Soficinema 3.

Produced by Francois Margolin, Kristina Larsen.

Directed by Hou Hsiao Hsien.

Screenplay, Hou Hsiao Hsien, Francois Margolin.

Cinematography: Mark Lee Ping Bin

Editors: Jean-Christophe Hym, Liao Ching Sung.

Music: Camille, Constance Lee.

Production designers, Paul Fayard, Hwarng Wern Ying.

Costume designer, Jean-Charline Tomlinson.

Sound: Chu Shih Yi