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October 2, 2007

The Flight of the Red Balloon, 2007

flightredballoon.gifDuring an early conversation in Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Flight of the Red Balloon, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), having only recently met her young son, Simon's (Simon Iteanu) new minder, Song (Fang Song), a student from Beijing who moved to Paris to study film, expresses her gratitude for lending a copy of a short film that she had recently completed, remarking that the film had reminded her profoundly of her own childhood - not in the familiarity of the content itself, but in the sensations, aromas, and memories that were stirred up in the collective association of the disparate images. In a way, Suzanne's experience also conveys the intangible ideal behind Hou's vision for the film, a slender and diaphanous, but accessible and finely rendered homage to Albert Lamorisse's beloved postwar short film, The Red Balloon. Hou filters the child's perspective of Lamorisse's film through the alterity of Song's (and implicitly, Hou's own) gaze: as a foreigner in Paris, as a new member of a chaotic household adjusting to the rhythm of the fractured family's set routines and nuances (and dramas) of unarticulated histories, as a personal filmmaker working through the intersections and divergences between Lamorisse's approach to the children's tale and her own. Similarly, Hou's patient and painstakingly observed vision is inherently a dual natured one, tempered by both his figurative innocence (as a non-native filmmaker shooting an homage to a culturally rooted French film with a child actor) and knowingness as an adult - an implied understanding of life's everyday complications that is also reflected in his heroine's muted, polite (and perhaps resigned) responses of "d'accord". To this end, Hou's disarmingly (but appropriately) facile illustration of the film's inherent duality is elegantly encapsulated in Simon's school trip to the Musée d'Orsay, where a curator's interaction with the children reveals the ambiguities in even a seemingly banal image of a child at play in Félix Vallotton's The Ball. This impossibility of absolute recreation (and consequently, interpretation) is also reflected in the drifting, omnipresent red balloon that Simon spots hovering beyond the glass roof of the museum - in its own way, an evocation - a subjective reality shaped by the estrangement of culture, time, history, and memory.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 02, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, New York Film Festival


What is the meaning of all this though? What does HHH mean with this submissive chinese girl in Paris? What is the political significance of Binoche's chaotic relation with her neighbor? Why the family nucleus split apart? Why the red balloon's role is different from Lamorisse's? Why the reference to The Puppetmaster?
I felt HHH laid out the issues without developping them, without giving coherence to the global message.
I'm confused like I was with Café Lumière.

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Oct 04, 2007 4:59 PM | Permalink

Hi Harry, I think it was actually because I expected nothing that I left being pleasantly surprised. I knew it would be "fluffy" (I was actually not planning to see it, I just happened to be in town for the Demirkubuz), so I wasn't looking for (or expecting) big meanings. I took it for face value, the red balloon is kind of the "thing itself". It's a child's story...escapist and naïve. But it's not how a child sees the world around him, it's double filtered, so it's "twice removed" from what is really happening. It makes the pieces more abstract and figurative, like an adult's memory of childhood, rather than "real".

I don't think it's anywhere near Three Times or Lamorisse's either, and it's not trying to be. I'd actually agree with you about the Café Lumière comparison. They're both films by outsiders, but I think the idea of strangerness is more palpable here, and the camerawork is also more polished.

Posted by: acquarello on Oct 04, 2007 9:08 PM | Permalink

Acquarello, I'm really glad you mentioned the scene at the Musée d'Orsay. After the TIFF screening, Darren and I talked about how moving and, to borrow your phrase, elegant that moment is. To be honest, though, I had great difficulty connecting with the film and only did so on a few occasions (the Musée d'Orsay scene is one of them). During the Q&A, Binoche talked about the freedom she enjoyed while making the film. There were no second takes, not much of a script, and the direction Hou gave her was minimal; for example, for the scene in which piano movers move Binoche's piano, all the script said was "piano movers move piano," or something to that effect. She and the men (actual movers) improvised the conversation, and Binoche's decision to tip them was the result of habit. Hou approached most of the rest of the film in a similar manner.

She repeated something she mentioned just before the film started -- about how transformative this role was for her, largely because of the trust Hou had in her. If there's any actress who could pull this role off with such minimal direction, it's probably her.

Posted by: Michael on Oct 05, 2007 7:47 PM | Permalink

Hi Michael, I agree with you (or d'accord, I guess :) ). Most of the film does feel disconnected, but I thought it made sense within the context of Song trying to find her place in this household and in Paris. The only times she's not reactive is when she's filming (in a way, directing the action or "controlling" the environment), otherwise, she's observing - passive - because she's "out of place". I can see why Binoche had so much control in her performance, she had to, because everybody's movements is basically a reaction to hers. The Musée d'Orsay piece almost felt segregated in that sense because it wasn't about reactions to Suzanne at all, but I way to reframe the "sides" of that push/pull equation. Meanwhile, the balloon isn't part of that equation, it almost has a will of its own too, neither (inter)acting nor reacting, it's just there, "connecting" with Simon in is own language.

Posted by: acquarello on Oct 06, 2007 7:27 AM | Permalink

Is it about the child or about Song?
Maybe I expected too much because it was my favorite auteur filming my city, so I'm biased. But I feel that HHH is on auto-pilot for this commissionned work. The fact everything is improvised with one take, tells how much he didn't care, and let things happen like if it wasn't serious. HHH experimented with cinéma-vérité at the time of The Boys from Fengkuei, but it's not a film made by the Hou we know since Flowers of Shanghai.

As far as the stranger adaptating to Paris, I could see that in What Time Is It There?, as understated, but with some hints telling us what feeling the auteur meant to illustrate. But here we don't even see Song's film, she has no feelings, no personality, no interaction with her world, she's not present to the film.

Wasn't it a little too literal to pick a painting with a ball and to film the balloon in the same scene?

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Oct 06, 2007 8:10 AM | Permalink

Acquarello, that's a nice reading of Song's role in the film; I hadn't quite thought about those interesting distinctions between her reactive and passive moments. I do think there's a good balance in the film between Song, Suzanne, and Simon, and in that sense (to answer Harry's question), perhaps the film is about all three of them.

Posted by: Michael on Oct 06, 2007 6:28 PM | Permalink

I think the literality is intentional though, because part of the film is about demystifying the filmmaking process (like using a person wearing green to be able to digitally edit him out later).

Coincidentally, Jacqueline Goss had an avant-garde film that talks about "strangerness" today. Basically, someone talks about how being an immigrant in the US makes her feel more invisible or anonymous, and from personal experience, I think there's a great deal of truth in that statement. That's where I see Song too, she feels invisible, and that invisibility is what's reflected on film. I agree with Michael on this too, the balloon doesn't really belong to anyone, and in a similar way, the film isn't about any one of them, but their dynamics (like the invisible strings that make the balloon drift from place to place).

Posted by: acquarello on Oct 07, 2007 1:24 AM | Permalink

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