To say that Hou Hsiao-Hsien's The Flight of the Red Balloon takes place in a rarified world might be understating things a bit. Its protagonists are filmmakers, script writers, piano teachers and puppeteers -- in some of those cases, culture elites among cultural elites, so not your everyday neighbors.
And yet, they face everyday issues. Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) is a single mother, an actress who gives voice to puppet shows, and the granddaughter of a puppeteer. She hires Song (Fang Song), a young filmmaker, as a nanny for Simon (Simon Iteanu), her mop-haired son. She lives in the house left to her by her parents, and downstairs tenant Marc, a writer, hasn't paid his rent in a year. Should she initiate legal action? She has a piano moved into her place, and she chats with the movers about their on-the-job injuries. The piano tuner, who arrives later, is blind.
Hou was raised in Taiwan, and The Flight of the Red Balloon, which is set in Paris, is his first non-Chinese film. It's French in every way -- especially in that early New Wave way, where deeper issues percolate among quotidian routines. But it's also very Chinese: symbolic, ponderous, slightly classical. Hou takes his title and central metaphor -- as well as a plot device -- from "The Red Balloon" (1956), a 34-minute French film about a red balloon that follows a curious little boy around the streets of Paris.
The same thing happens to Simon, but only at intervals: The film opens with him beckoning the balloon to come to him from the tree in which it's stuck, then it follows him for a few minutes after he gives up and walks away. It reappears after an hour, looking into the window of their apartment, and it returns at the end as the story and the characters drift away.
What do we make of this metaphor, this device, this reference to the older film? I admire filmmaking like this -- intelligent, meticulous, and decidedly non-commercial -- even if watching it can be a chore. Naturally, there's plenty of self-reference. Song begins to make a short film about Simon and a red balloon, and an earlier film of hers touches Suzanne, who relates its setting and sensations to her own past and present life. This is art about art (about art?), like a mirror held up to itself -- or inside baseball, if you prefer an earthier metaphor.
Some of the acting and dialogue, especially in the scenes between Song and Simon, feel improvised, or at least loosely scripted to allow for some spontaneity. (Plus Song has never acted before, and may never do so again.) Binoche is especially fluid and open in her performance, and the film has an eerie, almost dreamlike quality, despite its slice-of-life story.
The Flight of the Red Balloon has no real plot, yet it's not simply a series of scenes. Where most drama concentrates its gaze to heighten its effect, The Flight of the Red Balloon casually diffuses it, giving its melancholy time to penetrate. It's bathed in a casual sadness, yet it's not a sad film. And how did they get that balloon to hover and drift and linger, watching the characters like a guardian angel? In the annals of special effects, that one has me stumped. In French, with subtitles.
Starts Fri., June 13.