Creating an effective homage is a tricky thing, but Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao Hsien has found the right balance of reverence and independence in Flight of the Red Balloon. There are constant echoes of Albert Lamorisse's The Red Balloon throughout Hou's meditative interpretation, including sequences that capture the whimsy of the 1956 original, which follows a solitary boy who befriends a willful, self-propelled balloon.
In his first film made outside Asia, Hou goes to one of the most cinematically familiar cities in the world and makes it feel fresh and accessible. Paris isn't an imposing monolith here, but a vibrant metropolis driven by the energy of its on-the-go inhabitants. Hou brings an outsider's perspective and a painterly eye to his Red Balloon, which was commissioned by the Musée d'Orsay (and features a scene shot in the airy, inviting museum).
Lamorisse's brief (34 minutes) and nearly silent film was made for children, but Hou focuses on an inquisitive child beholding the chaotic world of adults. Simon (Simon Iteanu) is remarkably self-possessed for a 7-year-old, particularly when compared to his volatile mother Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), whose life is as frazzled and unruly as her brittle blond bob. Suzanne's personal relationships are tumultuous, and as she pleads on the phone with a distant lover in Montreal and teenage daughter in Brussels, Simon looks on with preternatural calm.
A puppeteer with a deep love for traditional Chinese techniques and storytelling, Suzanne provides the voices for a marionette play based on a Yuan Dynasty tale of romantic devotion. Her rarefied occupation is a given in this milieu, where artistic expression is seen as a viable pursuit, no matter how obscure the form. So when Suzanne hires Taiwanese film student Song (Song Fang) as Simon's new nanny, it's as much in admiration of her cinematic output as her gentle, caring manner.
Hou (Flowers of Shanghai, The Puppetmaster) shares Song's quiet, observant nature, and he treats the quotidian details of these overstuffed Parisian lives with veneration. Yet there are plenty of times during this meandering Flight when Hou could have hewed more closely to Red Balloon's perpetual forward motion. His film is undeniably lovely, but often more static than soaring.
In this version, it's Song more than Simon who realizes the significance of the red balloon, as the lighter-than-air symbol of freedom in a society that prides itself on the ability to keep everyone grounded. —
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, April 18-19 and at 4 and 7 p.m. on Sunday, April 20. Call 313-833-3237.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].