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In Paris, a 'Red Balloon' with an Eastern Air

In the past few years, we've seen many pointless remakes of old movies. What we haven't seen enough of are fictional films that engage in a kind of dialogue with the movie past.

I don't mean Quentin Tarantino's amusing homages to the grindhouse ecstasies of his youth. I mean something like Hou Hsiao-hsien's new Flight of the Red Balloon, a masterpiece that uses as its springboard another masterpiece — Albert Lamorisse's 1956 The Red Balloon, that lyrical fantasy of a French boy followed around Paris by a devoted balloon with a mind of its own.

Hou is a Taiwanese filmmaker who tells slow, meditative stories, often centering on the act of storytelling itself. His narratives loop around in time, yet his transitions are so seamless you might think you're watching slice-of-life realism. Many critics regard him as one of the world's greatest directors, yet his work has rarely been commercially distributed in the U.S. And the only reason you have a shot at catching Flight of the Red Balloon is because it's Hou's first film in another language and features an international star, Juliet Binoche.

Binoche plays Suzanne, the divorced mother of a 7-year-old boy named Simon, played by Simon Iteanu. The boy is adrift in the world, yet Hou doesn't rub your nose in his loneliness. It takes a while to grasp that his only real connection, apart from an older sister who lives abroad, is the red balloon that follows him around. You even see it hovering outside the window of his chaos-ridden flat. The balloon's movements are set to a plaintive piano score and have the delicacy of Balinese puppetry. Its motion reinforces a feeling of life as a series of currents and crosscurrents.

Suzanne runs a puppet theater and chants the accompanying narration — tales of mythical characters who interact with gods and are transfigured. Yet her own life is miserably untranscendent. We see her sprawled amid piles of paper, wailing into her phone at a lover who has gone to Canada and shows no signs of coming back. Even her peroxided hair seems clenched.

Binoche improvised her lines, reportedly fumbling her way along like her character, and if you think you love her as an actress, you have to see her here. She's barely controlled, yet at the height of her art. As she searches through the mess for a lease agreement with an intrusive tenant, her son practices piano off screen. Another director might hold on him, but Hou reinforces the neglect by keeping him out of the frame altogether.

To this mix comes a new nanny, Song, played by Song Fang, a quiet, attentive film student who, possibly inspired by the child in her care, decides to make her own version of The Red Balloon, and even shoots Simon in front of a building with a huge balloon painted on its side.

There's something magical about Hou's transparency. He even has Song explain to Suzanne how in her film she'll use a computer to remove the person controlling the balloon. Knowing the technology doesn't diminish our wonder. The red balloon of Hou's movie has the impishness of one of the many meddlesome spirits in the films of the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, who made Spirited Away.

At the risk over-generalizing, The Flight of the Red Balloon brings a classical Asian point of view to Lamorisse's original — a steadiness of the camera's gaze as the characters' world falls apart. It's not a detached perspective; it's merely helpless to intervene.

But the very presence of that camera — both Hou's and the one held by Song, the filmmaker within the film — is comforting. The camera and the balloon both watch over the child. It's the transforming power of art that makes you look to the sky and hope.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.
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