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Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao Hsien just made a film in Japan, 'Café
Lumiere.' This, his first foray out of Asia to make a film, was
commissioned by the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. It's a precise study of the
quotidian, and since that quotidian is in Paris, it's particularly
graceful and lovely, despite the themes of urban loneliness and stress,
which seem to grow seamlessly out of the last film into this one. It's
about a frazzled lady named Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) with
over-bleached, unruly hair. Her life is a little like her coiffureshe
can't quite seem to control it. She has a seven-year-old boy named
Simon (Simon Iteanu), with a fine profile and a big mop of hair, and an
annoying downstairs lodger (Hipolyte Girardot), a friend of her absent
boyfriend, who, it emerges, hasn't paid his rent in a year. Suzanne's
work is unusual. She puts on Chinese puppet plays, for which she does
all the voices. As the film begins, she picks up Song (Song Fang), a
Taiwanese girl studying film-making, fluent in French, who is going to
be a "child minder" for Simon. And then she picks up Simon at school,
introduces them, and takes them to the apartment.
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
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.
First things first, this is the slowest movie I have ever seen. Video
shots are extremely long, and many shots are of the characters are of
long mundane activities. It reminds me of sitting and chatting to
friends on our porch for hours every evening in the south.
Yet I liked it. I found the move almost like a dream - and as I walked out of the theater, It was like I had been in Paris for the last week.
I would recommend this to anyone who is open to new experiences, or to see a glimpse of the world from a unique perspective. And if the magic buried in the subtle moments of life is food for your soul, this is your ticket.
If you want conflict, action, or comedy, this is not your pooch.
Aww heck., take the plunge - watch something unique, and do not bring a watch.
Watched at the Toronto International Film Festival, with a personal
appearance by Juliette Binoche, a favourite guest of the TIFF.
Those who have watched "The red balloon" (1956) will never forget it. "Flight of the Red Balloon", Hou's Hsiao-hsien's second foreign language (i.e. non-Chinese) film, is not a remake of this all-time classic. Rather, Hou's film pays tribute to it, as well as borrows from it the obvious motif.
Those who have watched his first foreign language film Japanese "Cafe Lumiere" (2003) would recognize Hou's unassuming style: slow, languid pace visually; complete silence to dreamy piano in the audio department. This film actually already has more "action" (for want of a better word) than most of Hou's other films. Wandering nonchalantly around various slices of daily life of a simple family in Paris, the film starts with Song (Fang Song), a film student from Beijing, taking up a post as nanny of little kid Simon (Simon Iteanu) whose divorced mother Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) is a busy actress.
Revolving around the three principle characters, the film depicts various things alternatively amusing, frustrating, touching, mundane, inspiring at that particular time in their lives: Song and Simon getting to know each other, Suzanne's interesting current assignment of supplying all spoken dialogue in a puppetry theatre (how wonderfully Binoche does that!), hassles with an irresponsible basement tenant, Song's self-initiated project of filming a "red balloon" sequence with Simon as the subject, Simon's longing for his loving elder sister currently sojourning in Brussels, and more.
It is through sharing with them their simple daily lives rather than earth-shattering emotional turmoil that we come to know and care for these characters. In Hou's usual unassuming style, meticulous attention is given to simple details, things so simple that a crafty Hollywood screen-writer wouldn't dream of writing. Example. Suzanne brings home an armful of grocery as presents and, in high spirit, dumps them on the kitchen table, hitting the overhead lamp with the upswing of her arm. Completely as-a-matter-of-course, little Simon says, "Mind the lamp". Example. Two workmen, after a tough negotiation with the staircase, succeed in moving a piano upstairs, during which time Song and Simon wait patiently downstairs. As the workmen, after a friendly chat with Suzanne and receiving their fee, walk out of the door, Song walks in, carrying the piano stool. Suzanne exclaims, "Oh, I've forgotten all about the piano stool!"
Going back to the title, the red balloon, as mentioned, is used as a recurring motif, not too frequently, but just at the right moments to punctuate the mood of the film. This is vintage Hou and brilliant Pinoche, except to those few who walked out of the TIFF screening, obviously out of boredom (and at Cannes early this year too, from a review I've read). But then there are always a few of those.
Art of a very high order, Hsiao-hsein Hao directs the Musee d'Orsay
commissioned "The Flight of the Red Balloon", a stand-alone film paying
homage to the Lamorisse's 1956 film favorite "The Red Balloon".
Directed with class and elegance, although stumbles in indulgent
overextended shots and pacing problems, it pays dividends to the
patient as we are welcomed into a claustrophobic apartment inhabited by
a mother and son struggling to come to grips with a marital separation.
The film knows its audience and it caters to them loyally, however
won't convert any non-believers.
Although not explicit, the sense of chaos is however present right from the point where we enter Suzanne and Simon's apartment in Paris. Clearly not in control of her marital and maternal situation, she drowns herself in work as a puppet show narrator where she can control the fantastic as opposed to her real and disorganized state. Enter Song, a film student who acts as Simon's surrogate as his mother deals with this transitional process.
The film's screenplay is as light as a helium balloon, we enter their micro-cosmos through Song, almost this film's allegory towards the original's red balloon as its voyeuristic anchor nonjudgmental and omnipresent. Although certain scenes clearly leads to nowhere, they are nonetheless welcome as it highlights the reality of the situation and also the characters' desire to reach back to normal. It is clear here, Suzanne desires a somewhat 'normal' family life: almost pleading for her eldest daughter to move back to Paris and for his ex-husband's friend/tenant to leave the property. A daughter of divorce, she knows it is imperative that a routine has to be established.
The way Hao films this, it has this odd certain detachment towards the characters, almost a "Wings of Desire" approach, static camera in tow. We see a single mother in despair but the audience isn't allowed to feel anything about it: almost factual. Binoche personifies Suzanne with a quiet dignity and pride that her devastation is disallowed to be brought to the surface, but of course, when things build up to a boil, we can sense her immediate discomfort and frustration.
What seems like a nonchalant Simon, he is clearly affected too, as he can't even distinguish his own family tree, to the effect that even the audience can be driven to confusion. He becomes distant to his own mother, finding solace through nostalgia with a long summer with his sister. He and Suzanne's relationship is also obviously affected, as most of the film, they indulge in small talk and when the mother desires for an eye to eye contact, he looks away.
The decision to film this in a calming atmosphere as opposed to the chaos in the characters' is a smart idea: it highlights the juxtaposition even more. As opposed to the Lamorisse classic, the maternal figure here is in focus. The film works within its parameters and Hao does not belittle its audience of course, only to those willing to be engulfed by it.
Note:anyone who fancies the cinematic overkill bombast of Jerry Bruckheimer,Michael Bay,Roland Emerich,etc.....PLEASE STAY AWAY FROM THIS FILM! That said,'Flight Of The Red Balloon' is a beautiful little film on the human condition. It comments on the Eurocentric lifestyle, as viewed through the Asian perspective. The story concerns a single mother,played to perfection by Juliette Binoche (always welcome on screen,as I've been an ardent fan of her work since 'The Unbearable Lightness Of Being')trying to raise her young son (Simon Iteanu),with an older daughter away at school, all without her absent husband. Also in the mix is an attractive young film student from Taiwan (played by Song Fang)who has been hired as Simon's Au pair,who fits in nicely among the others. Taiwan director Hou Hsiao Hsien (Flowers Of Shanghai, Three Times)has crafted a film that is mesmerizing to look at. Despite the rather hum drum goings on that transpire that in the hands of another director would be unwatchable, Hsien manages to make every day events seem dreamy. The film is a homage (of sorts)to Albert Lamorisse's now legendary film short,'The Red Balloon',in which the balloon acts as companion to a lonely French boy. The balloon,in this case acts as a narrative device,bringing the individual elements together (the humans)for nearly two hours that you can't tear your gaze from.
At first I was surprised to see such a negative first review. After
looking through the other comments I understood why. There is no middle
impression on this movie. It's one of those movies that you love or
hate/dislike. It's not a "good" or "not bad" movie.
I just think it touched some people, like me. I spent 1 1/2 years in Paris and I have a profound passion for French culture since I was a kid. For me, after living for more than 5 months in China, it felt good to remember Paris. I saw a movie that depicted only a snapshot of some people's lives. Their way of living, their problems are typical to the French society.
One user was talking about plot, drama. For me, this movie was more about feelings than actions. Some smiles, some tears, the image, the people. It made me remember "Paris, je t'aime".
I think that if I didn't have the Paris experience or an affinity for the French society, the movie wouldn't have touched so much. I think there's a second level in this movie that is accessible only to those who understand the French society.
Somewhere the highly regarded Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien had
the idea of paying homage to the 1956 classic Albert Lamorisse film THE
RED BALLOON, a tender story of a child's interaction with a nearly
animate floating balloon, and while there is indeed an short
introduction of a small boy addressing an errant red balloon floating
in Paris, the 'homage' stops there. What follows is an overly long,
frustratingly impromptu series of scenes that lack cohesion and
THE FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON (Le Voyage du balloon rouge) is a prolonged (113 minutes) series of scenes that stutter along with the same sort of wandering course of the occasionally visible red balloon to present moments in the life of a disheveled, frumpy, single mother Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) whose income depends on her fascination and obsession with Chinese marionette presentations for which she supplies the backstage voice for all of the characters. Her absent 'husband/boyfriend' has left her to write in Montreal while Suzanne must care for her young son Simon (Simon Iteanu) with the help of a newly hired Taiwanese photographer nanny Song (Fang Song) while her daughter resides in Brussels. This disheveled household is further complicated by the freeloading Marc (Hippolyte Girardot), the friend of her absentee 'husband', by Simon's piano lessons taught by Anna (Anna Sigalevitch), and by impossible conflicting schedules for marionette performances, partially relieved by Song's quiet ability to take Simon on adventures outside the confines of the cluttered little space they all call home. The only quieting element of this film is the occasional appearance of the 'guardian angel' red balloon, which seems to be a symbol for defining the real world of Simon and the illusory world he craves. The dialogue as written by Hou and François Margolin is choppy and the camera work and constant meandering piano music seem extemporaneous: there are few resolutions to the individual stories that are only hinted. Juliette Binoche is a solid actress able to make the most of a minimal script and horrendous costuming and makeup: her moments of being the voice of marionettes are magical. But this Red Balloon just doesn't take flight in the context of this homage. As with the rest of the film the balloon just floats off at the end. The viewer needs a lot of patience with this film! Grady Harp
In CAFE LUMIERE, Hou paid tribute to Ozu. Here it's Lamorisse and his famous short film. I liked this more than any other Hou I've seen so far, which is odd because it seems to be considered one of his lesser films. Perhaps I only like Hou when he's not being so Hou. There was a lot to decode here, but I think one of the primary messages is the meeting of two cultures. The red balloon could be associated with the red prominent in Chinese culture, floating through and discovering Paris much in the same way as the director himself. The balloon seems to watch over and sympathize with the characters but doesn't ever connect. We have Juliette Binoche (in a very warm and relateable performance) practicing the art of Chinese puppet theater, and in her employ is Fang Song (another very likable performer), a Chinese nanny. These characters interact and even have moments of tenderness together, but they are detached, not quite involved in each other's lives. And then there are multitudes of instances being seen through windows, in reflections, through a camera, on a screen, via a child's toy. We are separated, but I see you and watch you with care. Outsiders looking in, doing what they can. I enjoyed my time with these characters and was engaged with their situations, understated though they might be. Lovely photography by one of my favorites, Mark Ping Bin Lee, and a gentle score. Makes me wonder what I've missed in Hou's other films.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This morning when I looked at "The Flight of the Red Balloon" lying on
our bistro table waiting to share its journey with me, I realized that
I had been avoiding watching it because of how much I love Albert
Lamorisse's Red Balloon from 1956. I would like to believe that it's a
staple of every household (not just French), every language and art
teacher's classroom, and a necessity for anyone who dares to let loose
their imagination and dreams.
The first scene itself grabbed me with young Simon talking to a red balloon outside the subway entrance, so I settled down and let myself enjoy the rest. It spread a warmth inside me like when soft morning sunlight streams in through closed windows--all is lit, quiet, still, warm, and happy--oblivious of that which might have transpired the day before, lovingly inviting you to a fresh and a new beginning full of possibility.
Hou Hsiao Hsien, the 60-year-old born-in-China-raised-in-Taiwan filmmaker, packs in so much and with such adroitness that he makes everything seem simple.
The broader context of the film is dark -- frankly, realist -- a single mom, Suzanne, juggling work and care for her children (one of whom is away at school). In her struggle Suzanne races to get it to it all but winds up diluting the quality time she would spend with her 7- year old, Simon, were she not so devoted to her career in puppetry and theater (Juliette Binoche is brilliant as she gives voice to the puppets).
The child minder she hires is a Taiwanese film student, Song, who is quiet and aloof in her own way, her attention divided between taking care of Simon's needs and making progress on her film making project--a tribute to Lamorisse's Red Balloon.
Simon is self-absorbed as well. He moves from one thing to another, seamlessly, propelled by instinct and sub-consciously felt needs and desires, just as a boy his age would. We watch him practice piano, play on his Playstation, go for long walks in town with Song, speak to the red balloon, talk on the telephone, use the digital movie camera to help Song make her film, and register the adult world conflict and strife albeit peripherally.
Three different worlds and levels of consciousness and isolation. Yet, no one seems to make undue demands of one another and everyone seems to try to accommodate others' needs, and in doing so they spin a delicate web of verbal and mostly non-verbal communication-- facial expressions, body language, decor, and silence--as they meet the challenges of modern day living. Hou is able to find the reassuring simplicity in this complex world, and that's what tempers the dark hues and keeps the spirits high.
Explaining in an interview with Mathieu Menossi of événe.fr (January 2008) why he chose to re-make Lamorisse's film, Hou says, --and I translate this from French -- It's been fifty years since the original Red Balloon came out, but for me it persists like an old spirit. A soul that did not depart but continued on it's journey to contemplate our current world. (my translation)
Hou also says, --again, my translation -- The red balloon represents what resides in all of us in the form of childhood sensibilities and instinct and passion. And from my point of view, the red balloon is me, as the director.
The red balloon seems to watch over and observe everyone at play from a distance. It tells us that hope and color survive in adverse circumstances. While it does not interact with the characters in this story--save the very first scene--it does interact with us, the spectators, and has been placed there for us. The red balloon IS us, silently bobbing along, hovering, eavesdropping... It's Hou reminding us that we, too, can be playful and buoyant , rising above the vicissitudes of life that seem to tie us down. And since the balloon is silent, we can supply our own dialog as needed to complete our own story of the "flight." Ironically, but happily, we are captives of Hou's machinations.
Hou did not try re-make the same film. He paid homage to the original film by making another beautiful film, symbolically related to its predecessor. And in doing so, he also forced us to ask the question about the place and influence art has in our lives today. This is also a nod to music (piano lessons), painting (Félix Valloton's tableau in the Musée d'Orsay), oral folk traditions (the revival of puppetry as a valid and precious art form of its own), and of course the 7th art (Song making a film using her digital movie camera to pay homage to Lamorisse). The inter-textuality and the mingling of different cultures is particularly elegant and appropriate given the times we live in today.
Using the opposition between dark and light, banality and magic, pragmatism and innocence, adulthood and childhood, just like in Félix Vallonton's "le ballon" from 1899, Hou has created a masterpiece that offers layers of color and texture to the viewer with a patient eye.
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