Hou Hsiao Hsien‘s "Flight of the Red Balloon" was commissioned by the Musee d’Orsay, and the film finds it way there at its close, as children peer at Vallotton’s "The Balloon" and are coaxed through a discussion of whether the painting is a happy one, or a sad one. It’s as close as one comes to feeling any sense of narrative pressure from the film, which combines Hou’s typically exquisite naturalism with melancholy Parisian imagery inspired by a film doubtless thrust upon many an unwilling child by loftily intentioned parents, Albert Lamorisse‘s 1956 "The Red Balloon." Simon, the child in Hou’s film, sometimes has his own balloon bobbing alongside him, and drifts in the half-emergent awareness of childhood. The adults in his life, as one points out, are a bit more complicated. Foremost is his mother, played by Juliette Binoche in a valiantly unflattering though not unsympathetic role as a blowsy single parent devoted to her theatrical puppet troupe and struggling to rid her house of the freeloading friends of her lover, who has taken off for Montreal to write a novel and seems to have no intention of coming back. Binoche is fantastic as one of those warm, ramshackle human beings whose emotions seem to always be slipping the reins of their control; though sometimes shrill, her Juliette is always genial and all but invites others to prop her up. In the beginning of the film the one she’s found to do this is Song (Song Fang), a sometimes amusingly even-keeled (her sentences are always punctuated with "d’accord" — "all right") Chinese film student to serve as Simon’s nanny. Song is also using Simon in her student film, itself an update of Lamorisse’s, and in one of the most charming scenes we see Simon trotting down the street being followed by a balloon being carried by a man in full green screen costume.
We loved this film, but while watching it couldn’t help but think that there’s a reason Hou’s work rarely make much headway in the US. His muted narratives aren’t difficult to follow as much as unfriendly to the even slightly impatient. Lacking the visual voluptuousness of his last, "Three Times," the slender slices of Parisian life depicted in "Flight of the Red Balloon" require a predisposed viewer to capture interest, which, we suppose, is exactly what the film will attract when it reaches theaters here this year. The dramas it delineates are slight but momentous, not at all like those in your average movie, but a lot like those in everyday life.
"Flight of the Red Balloon" will be released in the US by IFC First Take.