With the exception of a lone, beautiful coda within the Musee d'Orsay, the very body responsible for the film's funding, Hou Hsiao-hsien's gorgeous Flight of the Red Balloon drifts away from these environs, making a film about Paris life that seems uninterested in Paris as a city. Based on, or perhaps just familiarized with, Albert Lamorisse's French children's classic The Red Balloon, Hsiao-hsien moves the focus from a child and his balloon to a child, his frazzled mom, and his new Chinese nanny, a young filmmaker on a student visa.
In an odd act of attentiveness, the nanny, Song (a great Song Fang), begins to make a student film about the red balloon floating around her arondissement, co-starring her ward, Simon (Simon Iteanu). Explaining how she got the balloon to move exactly how she wanted, Song briefly talks about green screens and the pratfalls of modern, low-budget filmmaking, giving Hsiao-hsien a behind-the-scenes fantasia of sorts within his own film. Simon's father, a writer in self-imposed exile in Montreal, has only one interaction by phone, but his presence is aptly felt through Simon's mother's (Juliette Binoche) barbed interactions with her husband's friend and current tenant, Marc (Hippolyte Girardot).
Binoche is a dream. Like the city in which the film is based, Hsiao-hsien has stripped Binoche of her token abilities: her dark hair mussed and badly dyed into a blonde mess, her usual role as center of gravity thrown into a state of utter upheaval, her coy beauty mutated into a palette of raw nerves. Yet, through this act of deviation, Binoche gives one of her best performances to date, at once completely spontaneous and thoughtfully patient.
In a year brimming with great French films (Heartbeat Detector, The Duchess of Langeais), it's ironic that the most successful of them would come from the Chinese-born, Taiwan-educated Hsiao-hsien. Like Wong Kar-wai's first immersion into foreign language cinema, the English-tongued My Blueberry Nights, Hsiao-hsien continues to study the same tropes of his outstanding Chinese output: loneliness, isolation, stilted love. It also touches on the polarizing effect of city life and travel, a strong force in the master's 2005 tribute to Ozu, Café Lumiere. But whereas Kar-wai's exercise coaxes out the director's inevitable faults, Balloon highlights Hsiao-hsien' staggering strengths, both aesthetically and technically speaking: Like the rest of Hsiao-hsien's oeuvre, his latest feels like the culmination of all his works beforehand.
Working with the masterful cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing, Hsiao-hsien, who gave his actors full character histories but no written dialogue, delivers all the film's action in confined settings. A cramped, cluttered apartment, a darkened puppet theater, the narrow streets of Paris: Somehow these areas breed imagination for Hsiao-hsien's actors. Shot in his patently-resplendent long takes, the aesthetic is seemingly unencumbered, but, coupled with Chu Shih Yi's gentle sound design, the images breathlessly unspool into suites of effortless intricacy. As Suzanne argues heatedly with Marc downstairs, Hsiao-hsien's camera wanders around the apartment as Song and Simon prepare for a mid-day snack and a blind tuner repairs Suzanne's piano. All the sounds and movements of the characters co-mingle, interact, climax, and then gently descend: You won't see anything as rapturous as this in any film this year.
Aka Le Voyage du ballon rouge.
OK, so the Eiffel Tower appears once.
Run time: 115 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 30th January 2008
Distributed by: IFC First Take
Production compaines: ARTE France Cinéma, Margo Films, Les Films du Lendemain, 3H Productions
Contactmusic.com: 4.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 80%
Fresh: 70 Rotten: 17
IMDB: 6.6 / 10
Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien
Producer: Francois Margolin, Kristina Larsen
Screenwriter: Hou Hsiao-hsien