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In Paris, Chinese cinema student Song Fang is hired to work as the nanny of Simon by his divorced mother Suzanne, who works voicing marionettes in a theater. Suzanne is having troubles with her tenant Marc, who does not pay the rent, while she waits for the return of her older daughter Louise, who lives with her father in Brussels. Written by
Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Much of the strength of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien's films lies in the astute powers of his observation and a sensibility that can turn details of everyday life into cinematic poetry. In "Café Lumiere", his lyrical tribute to Japanese auteur Yasujiro Ozu, the focus was on the streets of Tokyo, Japan. In his latest film, the lovely and nostalgic Flight of the Red Balloon, Hou and cinematographer Lee Ping-bing bring their observational camera to the streets of Paris, focusing on a Parisian family as they walk the streets, sit in the park, shop at stores, and visit a puppet theater, where Suzanne, the family's matriarch (Juliette Binoche) works as a puppeteer, writing the material and providing the vocal dramatics for the shows.
Unlike the missteps of Hou's last film "Three Times" where innocuous pop ballads filled the air, the only sounds we hear are the ambient sounds of the environment: people talking, traffic, and street noises. Filmed as the first in a series commemorating the 20th anniversary of Paris' Musee d'Orsay, Flight reprieves the magic of the original "Red Balloon", a thirty-minute short by Albert Lamorisse from 1956 that has attained the status of a children's classic. The balloon is not as intrusive in the update but still maintains a mysterious if more distant presence. In the opening scenes a young boy named Simon (Simon Iteanu) attempts to coax the red balloon from its perch high above a Parisian subway station.
The balloon decides to hover for a while and then begins to follow Simon as he makes his way home from school on buses and trains. Going on hiatus, the balloon reappears now and then but takes center stage once again at the film's conclusion. The plot is woven around Simon's mother and the frustrations she faces in being a single mom: working with her puppet show, dealing with recalcitrant tenants as a landlord, interacting with her gracious Taiwanese nanny Song (Song Fang), arranging for child care and piano lessons, talking on the phone to her boy friend in Montreal, barely having enough time to provide affection for young Simon who is quiet and lonely, estranged from his sister who lives in Brussels and only visits periodically.
It is a story no different than thousands of other split households, but the ability of the impeccable cast and the lyricism of Hou bring the film alive. In spite of her emotional ups and downs, Suzanne never loses control and Hou always maintains a wistful, almost lighthearted approach as people come and go in the crowded apartment: a piano tuner tries to do his job over the clamor of voices, the couple from downstairs cook vegetables in the kitchen, and Suzanne's lawyer discusses her options in dealing with the tenant behind in his rent.
The main character of the film, however, though not always on camera, is the balloon, a shimmering object in the sky that provides the emotional center of the film. While there are no overt magical sequences as in the original, the appearance of the balloon has a calming effect, suggesting that when we lose perspective and become too bogged down in the "stuff" of life, there is a presence that follows and guides us into the night.
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