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Flight of the Red Balloon (New York Times Movie Review)

Lila
lilaleec
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Huntington Beach, CA
Post #: 64
MOVIE REVIEW
The Flight of the Red Balloon (2007) NYT Critics' Pick

Tsai Cheng-Tai/IFC Films
Juliette Binoche in ?Flight of the Red Balloon.?
Another Balloon Over Paris, With Lives Adrift Below

By MANOHLA DARGIS
Published: April 4, 2008
If the luscious red orb that sails through ?Flight of the Red Balloon? like an airborne cherry looks as if it flew in from another movie, in some ways it did. The film, the latest wonderment from the Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien, takes as one of its inspirations Albert Lamorisse?s 1956 classic, ?The Red Balloon,? about a young boy and the talismanic sphere that follows him through the gray streets of Paris like a dog, a lover, a ghost ? as much a reminder of the precariousness of life as an emblem of innocence.


Cannes Journal: The Shushing of the Boos (May 25, 2007)

Filmography: Hou Hsiao-hsien
There is a young boy in this red balloon film too, Simon (Simon Iteanu), a moppet with sandy hair and serious eyes who lives with his mother, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), in a tiny bourgeois-bohemian Parisian flat bursting with books and bric-a-brac. When the story opens, Simon is trying to coax the balloon into his grasp, his body straining upward as he clambers on the railing of a Métro stop at the Place de la Bastille, the site of the uprising that helped ignite the Revolution of 1789. Despite Simon?s pleading, the balloon floats away and sails past the quarter?s totemic July Column, a pillar that commemorates the Revolution of 1830 and is crowned with a golden winged male figure called the Spirit of Liberty.

The balloon will soon hover closer to the ground, as will the film, which centers on a handful of characters joined together in love and no small amount of confusion, much of it churned up by Suzanne. One of the most vibrantly alive and true characters in Ms. Binoche?s career, a résumé inundated with melodramatic tears, Suzanne invades the film like a hurricane, a riot of colors, textures, patterns and words. She?s terminally distracted and buzzing with fury (at her estranged lover, at her neighbor), one of those bruised souls for whom every slight contains the threat of a larger drama. A professional puppeteer, she seems most at peace only when she?s giving grave, gravelly voice to one of her creations.

The story takes off shortly after the balloon does, when Simon is tethered to another elusive wanderer, Song (Song Fang), a Chinese national hired to be his sitter.

A former film student, Song turns out to be making a video about red balloons, which suggests that Mr. Lamorisse?s 1956 movie is beloved not only by Western children. (At one point you see snippets of her video ? Simon puts in a guest appearance ? which makes it seem as if Song had been scouting locations for the very film you?re watching.) Like the puppet show Suzanne performs, about a character who tries to boil the ocean to retrieve his beloved, the video speaks to something about the interior life of the character, giving shape to feeling.

The puppet play and the video are in a sense shadows of Mr. Hou?s film, which itself has a diaphanous, hypnotically ethereal quality. Part of this is due to Mr. Hou?s approach to narrative, which replaces the rigid linearity of the three-act model with complex, impressionistic forms; isolated gestures; fugitive moments; saturated moods; and visual harmony.

Yet while his stories may feel loose, elliptical (earlier titles include his 1998 masterpiece, ?Flowers of Shanghai?), he is extraordinarily rigorous. In ?Flight of the Red Balloon? he makes particularly expressive use of glass, as when Simon stares out a window and his gaze is met by his own reflection, a doubling that echoes the scene before, when the red balloon pauses next to its painted twinned image floating on a mural.

Melancholy clings to Simon, Suzanne and Song as it does to many of Mr. Hou?s characters. Much like the red balloon, which bops into periodic view and hovers outside the apartment window like a prowler (or an angel), mother and child appear especially adrift. They?re both in the world and yet somehow apart, as if lost in a mutual dream.

This otherworldly sense is amplified by two flashbacks ? one motivated by Simon, the other by Suzanne ? involving the family?s other child, Louise (Louise Margolin), a teenager who lives in Brussels, where she cares for her maternal grandfather, a puppeteer like Suzanne. Seen only in flashback and in images from childhood, Louise is the resident ghost, a reminder of the time when the family was together.

That may sound heavy, yet there?s a lightness of touch here that keeps the worst at bay. Mr. Hou?s films can be crushingly sad; as with Bresson and Ozu, his restraint only deepens the emotional power of his work. But whether because of that red balloon ? which alternately invokes the spirit of liberty and its elusiveness ? or because he was practicing his art in one of the world?s most beautiful cities, Mr. Hou has made a film that is, to borrow a line from one of his characters, ?a bit happy and a bit sad.? These words are spoken by a student who, with Simon and a cluster of others, is in the Musée d?Orsay with a teacher discussing Félix Vallotton?s 1899 painting of a child chasing a red ball, ?Le Ballon.?

Vallotton was associated with a group of Post-Impressionist artists, including Maurice Denis, who took their inspiration from Gauguin and called themselves the Nabis. The Nabis created vividly colored, abstracted images of everyday life that I think Mr. Hou must find appealing.

Embracing his status as a prophet of the modern, Denis wrote: ?Remember that a painting ? before being a war horse, a nude woman or some anecdote or other ? is essentially a flat surface covered with colors arranged in a certain order.? This seems worth mentioning because while it?s easy enough to speak of Mr. Hou?s themes ? the dissolution of the family, among others ? this film is also a flat surface of a different type covered with colors arranged in a certain order. (Plus light!)

In the end what elevates Mr. Hou?s films to the sublime ? and this one comes close at times ? are not the stories but their telling. In ?Flight of the Red Balloon? Mr. Hou plays with light and space on the small canvas that is Simon and Suzanne?s apartment, moving the camera around as gracefully as if it were a brush (or a balloon).

In one magnificent scene the camera floats from one character to the next for roughly eight minutes without a single cut, tracing invisible lines between Simon, Suzanne, Song, an intrusive neighbor and a piano tuner who is working on the family?s old upright. Out of this chaos ? Simon playing, Suzanne yelling, the piano tuner tuning, and Song simply moving among them ? Mr. Hou creates the world.

FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON

Opens on Friday in Manhattan.

Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien; written (in French, with English subtitles) by Mr. Hou and François Margolin, inspired by the film ?The Red Balloon? by Albert Lamorisse; director of photography, Mark Lee Ping Bing; edited by Liao Ching Sung and Jean-Christophe Hym; produced by Mr. Margolin and Kristina Larsen; released by IFC First Take. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Juliette Binoche (Suzanne), Simon Iteanu (Simon), Song Fang (Song), Hippolyte Girardot (Marc) and Louise Margolin (Louise).
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