The sky above, the world below
FLIGHT OF THE RED BALOON/ LE VOYAGE DE BALLON ROUGE Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Starring Juliette Binoche, Simon Iteanu, Hippolyte Girardot, Song Fang, Louise Margolin Club, IFI, Dublin, 114 min
READERS who ran screaming from Wong Kar Wai’s atrocious My Blueberry Nights could be forgiven for approaching the latest film from Hou Hsiao-Hsien with some caution.
Fear not. Flight of the Red Balloon does, indeed, find another idiosyncratic Asian director shepherding a movie star through a western location. But Hou’s characteristic traits (loose-limbed plotting, long, complex takes, a phobia of close-ups) are all in place, and the move from Taiwan to Paris has not lessoned their bewitching effect.
The film follows a few days in the life of a bohemian household. Juliette Binoche, her hair dyed blonde, plays Suzanne, a single mother who, despite being saddled with a hopeless absent husband, somehow manages to support her son (Simon Iteanu) by narrating puppet shows.
The story begins with Suzanne hiring a Chinese film graduate, Song (Song Fang), as a nanny for the boy. We learn of Suzanne’s financial disputes with a layabout tenant and find out a little about Song’s attitude towards cinema. A particular admirer of Albert Lamorisse’s short The Red Balloon, the young woman embarks on a few tentative pastiches of that great picture starring her young charge.
Hou intends the film as a homage to Lamorisse’s piece – in which a predatory balloon followed a child about Paris – but the connections with the shorter film are, in fact, largely superficial. Flight of the Red Balloon stands up as a worthy successor to earlier Hou gems such as Café Lumière and Three Times, in which his primly dispassionate camera followed quiet events with a cool discretion. Binoche and Song, both of whom coast comfortably through their roles, are always kept at a respectable distance and never suffer the indignity of hurried takes or eccentric angles.
As a consequence, Flight of the Red Balloon takes on a welcoming tone that should draw in all but the least patient of viewers. It’s good to see one modern master avoiding any undue damage in transit.
Juliette Binoche and Fang Song in Flight of the Red Balloon