Hou Hsiao-hsien’s first film outside of Asia, the luminous “The Flight of the Red Balloon,” uses Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 children’s short “The Red Balloon” as a counterpoint to its scarce story of a frazzled Parisian single mother (Juliette Binoche) navigating personal troubles, a career in puppetry and the raising of her seven-year-old son with the help of the Chinese film student (Song Fang) she’s hired as a nanny. My review from Cannes last year (written before the film was acquired by our sister company IFC Films) is here.
I love “The Flight of the Red Balloon,” and so do most of the critics, but I feel like the heady words of praise that are being heaped on it merit a word of caution “Flight”‘s a delicate as a soap bubble, with about as weighty a narrative pull. As with most all of Hou’s films, it needs patience and, really, to be watched in a theater. Still, as Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir wrote from Cannes last year: “Several people walked out of the premiere and I can only assume they were bored by this stuff. I’m not so naive as to think there’s a large audience for Hou’s films in America (or anywhere else, really). But ‘The Flight of the Red Balloon’ is not arty or difficult in any way, and I genuinely believe that, in its unassuming fashion, it’s a masterpiece.”
“In the end what elevates Mr. Hou’s films to the sublime — and this one comes close at times — are not the stories but their telling,” writes Manohla Dargis at the New York Times. David Edelstein at New York find that Hou “uses The Red Balloon as a springboard for his own masterpiece–a distinctively modern and allusive one, yet so tender and plaintive that you understand what Hou is up to on a preconscious level.” The Village Voice‘s J. Hoberman, in a particularly nice review, observes that “Flight of the Red Balloon is explicitly an outsider’s movie, full of odd perspectives and founded on dislocation,” concluding that the film “is in a class by itself. In its unexpected rhythms and visual surprises, its structural innovations and experimental perfs, its creative misunderstandings and its outrÃ© syntheses, this is a movie of genius.” Glenn Kenny at Premiere seconds the “genius” designation while adding that “This is a slice of life that implies so much more than what’s on its surface, something that today’s conventional narrative films are increasingly hard-pressed to even attempt.”
Michael Koresky at Reverse Shot commends that way that, despite Binoche’s star turn, the film “remains a story of childhood, not with bullies to overcome and rites of passage to traverse, but with the fleetingly beautiful moments caught in a haze of everyday routine.” Slant‘s Nick Schager commends its star: “At once commanding and vulnerable, Binoche is a revelation, dominating space in ways ultimately almost as masterful as her director.”
And a few words of dissent (or, at least, of grounding) amidst all this acclaim: Jonathan Rosenbaum at the Chicago Reader deemed “The Flight of the Red Balloon” a “relatively slight but sturdy work,” while the Onion AV Club‘s Scott Tobias writes that the film feels “impeccably slight, as if Hou were resigned to playing a tourist in his own movie,” allowing that it “disappoints more in context with his career than as a standalone piece.” And for Armond White at the New York Press, the problem with the film is that “Hou lacks the common touch.” While he declares that the film “never penetrates child and pop consciousness,” he does praise Binoche, who “pinpoints emotion across Hou’s undifferentiated compositions.”
[Photo: “The Flight of the Red Balloon,” IFC Films, 2007]