During 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.
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