Monday, December 29, 2008

Flight of the Red Balloon ***

Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien
Cast: Juliette Binoche
Simon Iteanu, Fang Song, Hippolyte Girardot
Louise Margolin, Anna Sigalevitch

Meditating on who art belongs to once it's released, director Hou Hsiao-hsien reworks Albert Lamorisse's beloved "The Red Balloon" to deliver an enchanting tale set in modern day Paris.
Juliette Binoche plays Suzanne, a single mother who hires Song (Song) a Chinese immigrant, and film student, to be her son Simon's (Iteanu) babysitter.
The film consists of vignettes where Simon is followed around the city by a big red balloon and those where he interacts with the adults in his life as they go through their routines.
Lamorisse's short film is a beautiful childhood fantasia tinged with melancholy and a weird sense of happiness, Hsiao-Hsien uses this to his advantage and gives his film a sense of desolation.
While he doesn't concentrate on Simon specifically, it's through his character where we perceive the loneliness felt by all of them.
Suzanne is always working or dealing with her problems, Song still feels she doesn't belong in France and Simon seems to know he doesn't really need a sitter at his age, yet their isolation becomes their means of identification and community with each other.
The film at first feels like a sort of sociological experiment, as if the director was studying Western culture through its movies and through families, but even as the film grows more conscious cinematically, the actors become more comfortable with their characters and reach a point where it seems they weren't even being filmed.
Although there isn't much of a story to follow, the film makes it almost impossible for you to take your eyes off it, much of it is of course owed to cinematographer Pin Bing Lee, whose curious camera competes with the balloon itself as to places where it can go.
Despite the fact that the settings become almost limited to Suzanne's messy apartment, where all the characters interact, the camera captures pleasantly surprising moments that achieve beautiful and chaotic intimacy.
Everything about the film seems so lived in that eventually there is no need for a traditional advancement of the story; it's as if we were spending an evening with people we know.
Binoche gives one of her finest performances as the bleach blonde Suzanne, who enters and exits her apartment fully aware that this is her stage, unlike the puppet theater where she works.
A drama queen that confides her existential problems with anyone who will listen, it's her overbearing need to please her son (who she knows she neglects) what becomes beautiful to watch. Her character feels like she's lived within it forever.
Curiously, while the actors work hard to achieve absolute subtlety, Hsia-hsien does his best to remind us that we are watching a film.
With Song, who arguably becomes his alter ego going beyond race and nationality and relying on the "foreign"-ness of a filmmaker within this surrounding, he views cinema as childhood and a filmmaker as someone who plays with time and alters it so that it may be of use to others.
He doesn't merely hint at this with his lyrical use of memories, which come through unconventional flashbacks and even with films themselves.
During one scene Suzanne asks Song to convert some 8 mm films of her great-grand father into digital discs, when she sees the results Binoche's expression of wonder is similar to what we would expect from someone witnessing time travel.
After watching one of Song's films (which we never see) Suzanne says "your film touches on very deep things I thought I'd forgotten". The same can be said for Hsia-hsien's and perhaps the director in a way was saying the same to Lamorisse.
But things get to a more meta level when we learn that the film song is working on is no other than an interpretation of "The Red Balloon". She even goes as far as to reveal the effects she will use to make the balloon follow Simon.
After this, the film turns on an intellectual twist and we wonder who does this red balloon belong to after all?
Is it Song's or Simon's? Is it Hsia-hsien's? Is it Lamorisse's or is it ours'?
In the film's most beautiful moment Simon goes with his classmates to a museum, the Musée d'Orsay, where their teacher has them analyze a haunting paiting of a child following a red balloon.
The teacher invites them to see beyond the painting and when at one point one of the kids suggests that there are more children beyond the painting it finally hits us that like Suzanne says "grown ups are a bit complicated" and don't take the time to grasp at all the beauty surrounding them, or care to do so for that matter.
We later see the balloon making its way through the Paris skyline and everything makes sense.

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