NYFF: Flight of the Red Balloon
I weasled my way into a press screening of Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon last night, and I fell in love with it unabashedly. It's the best film I've seen all year, next to Jia Zhangke's Still Life. The story comes later, the images come first. Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bin (Three Times, In the Mood For Love) crafts some incredibly beautiful images - most of them inside a cramped apartment in Paris. Arguing with neighbors, making crepes, and Playing PlayStation 2 have never looked so ravishing. Every surface seems to reflect the few streams of light in the room, and all seem to pulse with life. It's fun to just let the eye wander over the space. It's a film where the world and its objects trump the story, and Hou gives plenty of room for the viewer to explore.
Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) and her son Simon (Simon Iteanu) live inside this room. Binoche, with horrid blond-dye job, beat up Chuck Taylors, and thrift-store dresses, is the ever-harried queen of this castle, an aging boho actress in upscale puppet shows with a deadbeat ex-husband. She always seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but manages to keep her family's life moving anyway. It's an idiosyncratic, thoroughly winning performance.
She hires Song (Fang Song) as a nanny for Simon. Song is a film student from China, making her own adaptation of Albert Lamorisse's short film The Red Balloon (1956). A clear stand-in for Hou himself, she quietly eases into Parisian culture, using her camera to remember street directions along with making her movie.
It's main focus,though, is childhood. The opening shot of the film finds Simon imploring a red balloon that's stuck in a tree to come back to him. For the rest of the film, the balloon follows Simon's activities, peeking behind windows, sunroofs and subway doors. It's not particularly symbolic, but acts as more of a silent witness to Simon's home life, a marker for a time that Simon will eventually forget. Perhaps that's why I found the smallest, most everday gestures in the movie so moving - these are moments and gesture that will disappear - and rendered so luminously by Ping-bin, that's a sad thing indeed.