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With: Juliette Binoche, Simon Iteanu, Song Fang, Hippolyte Girardot, Louise Margolin, Anna Sigalevitch
Written by: Hou Hsiao-hsien, François Margolin
Directed by: Hou Hsiao-hsien
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 113
Date: 05/17/2007

Flight of the Red Balloon (2008)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Inflated State

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Like Hou Hsiao-hsien's more recent work, Flight of the Red Balloon moves a little more toward international accessibility and away from his early, uniquely Taiwanese stories. It's of a piece with Café Lumiere (2003), for which Hou was invited to Japan to make a film in tribute to Yasujiro Ozu. For the new film, Hou comes to France to pay tribute to Albert Lamorisse's legendary and beloved short film The Red Balloon (1956). (It's not a terribly surprising move, given that French critics and audiences have supported Hou more passionately and for much longer than their American counterparts.) Juliette Binoche stars -- in a direct reference to Hou's The Puppetmaster -- as Suzanne, a writer and voice actress with a troupe of puppeteers. Suzanne hires Song (Song Fang) as a nanny for her son Simon (Simon Iteanu). Song is a Taiwanese film student who decides, while in France, to make a film about red balloons. Miraculously, a red balloon appears every so often and floats around the Paris skyline, though Simon doesn't appear to notice. (He plays pinball or video games instead.)

The overall narrative is as aimless and wandering as the balloon. Suzanne works hard at the troupe, and she comes home frazzled, having grabbed snacks or dinner from a nearby café. Binoche is simply miraculous in this role, working in a more improvisatory method than she is used to. She's like a hummingbird, with wild, blonde Texas housewife hair, and low-cut, leopard-skin tops, barely able to stand still or continue a conversation strand for any length of time. Like most of Hou's work, the individual scenes play out like slices of life. He prefers to plant his camera and pan around to take in the scene; he uses very few setups or close-ups. By observing the characters throughout a long scene, and watching how quickly and how often the subject changes, we can learn more about them than through a carefully-scripted and organized back-and-forth conversation. Whatever Hou wishes to say with his film, he never comes right out and says it. Are we too busy for balloons these days? Is he saying that the magic is still out there, if only we'd take the time to look? Perhaps Flight of the Red Balloon itself is one of those magic moments.

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