The Musee d'Orsay lent Hou a copy of Albert Lamorisse's 1956 classic 34-minute short 'The Red Balloon.' This is a kind of homage to and riff on it. There's a big red balloon that keeps following Simon. Song also starts shooting a little film of Simon with a red balloon.
Hou admits he didn't know a lot about Paris. Somehow he got hold of a copy of Adam Gopnik's book about the city, 'Paris to the Moon,' an enlightening and truly smart study of the French and their capital that grew out of the years when Gopnik was The New Yorker's correspondent therewhen he also had young a little boy along. From Gopnik Hou learned about how old Parisian cafes still have pinball machines ('flippers', the French call them). He also learned that the merry-go-round in the Jardin du Luxembourg has little rings the children catch on sticks as they ride around (like knights in the days of jousting). Hou put both those things in his movie. He says that once he had Simon's school and Suzanne's apartment, the film was safely under way. He provided a very detailed scenario (penned by Hou with co-writer and producer François Margolin) complete with full back stories, but the actors had to decide what to say in each of their scenes. They did, quite convincingly.
Hou's life has been full of puppets from childhood, and he made a film about a puppet master. This time he incorporates a classic Chinese puppet story about a very determined hero: he meant it to describe Suzanne, who creates a new version of it. He also brings in a visiting Chinese puppet master. Suzanne calls in Song to act as interpreter for the puppet master during his visit, and also asks her to transfer some old family films to disk. The lines between filmmaker and story, actors and their characters, blur at times.
Flight may be seen as a contrast of moods. That tenant downstairs has become a real annoyance. Simon's father has been away as a writer in residence at a Montreal university for longer than he planned. These two things are enough to make Suzanne fly off the handle whenever she comes home. But Song and Simon are calm souls, and they hit it off from the start. With Simon, all is going well. He's happy with his young life. Math, spelling, flipper, wandering Paris with Song, catching the rings at the Jardin du Luxembourg, taking his piano lessons: the world according to Simon is full and good. Suzanne hugs Simon as if to draw comfort from his love and his serenity.
Hou has a wonderfully light touch. Changes of scene feel exactly right. The red balloon and the occasional judiciously placed pale yellow filter by Hou's DP Mark Lee Ping Bing make the Parisian interiors seem almost Chinese, and beautiful in their cozy clutter. Let's not forget that red is the luckiest color in Chinee culture.
You could say that nothing really happens in Hou's red balloon story. Like other auteur-artist filmmakers, he requires patience of his audience. But nothing in particular has to happen, because he stages his scenes with such grace and specificity that it's a pleasure to watch them unfold; a lesson in life lived for its zen here-and-now-ness. Occasionally perhaps here the absence of emotional conflicts or suspense leads to momentary longeurs, but one's still left feeling satisfied. Clever Hou, who is clearly a master of seizing the moment, can make you feel as much at home in Paris as any French director. Though Flight of the Red Balloon may generate little excitement, it provides continual aesthetic pleasure, and at the same time has the feel of daily life in every scene. This is a method that can incorporate anything, so at the end the Musee d'Orsay is easily worked in, through Simon's class coming for a visit and looking at a painting by Félix Vallottonof a landscape with a red balloon. It's in the nature of good film acting that Binoche's character, though sketched in only with a few brief scenes, seems quite three-dimensional. This is Hou at his most accessible, but there is more solidity to this film than might at first appear.
An official selection of the New York Film Festival 2007. ©Chris Knipp 2007