Juliette Binoche, Simon Iteanu, Fang Song, Hippolyte Girardot
Hsiao-hsien Hou, Francois Margolin
NR (Equivalent to PG-13)
IFC First Take
Fans of Taiwanese filmmaker Hsiao-hsien Hou are likely to embrace "Flight of the Red Balloon," his latest film that transplants his central themes of family and social isolation smack dab in the center of Paris in this film that is loosely inspired by Albert Lamorisse's "The Red Balloon" from 1956.
"Flight of the Red Balloon" stars a blonde Juliet Binoche as a puppeteer named Suzanne. Suzanne has a 7-year-old son (Simon Iteanu), an aspiring filmmaker nanny from China named Song (Song Fang), a husband who hs left for Montreal to write a novel and a deadbeat downstairs tenant.
While "Flight of the Red Balloon" features Hou's trademark slow pacing and gift for quiet observation, the film also has an wealth of subtle playfulness that comes alive as the young boy is followed throughout the film by a red balloon that becomes an essential key character as the film progresses.
If it resembles any of his previous work, "Flight of the Red Balloon" most resembles "A Summer at Grandpa's," a film that warmly and simply captured some of childhood's best moments. While "Flight of the Red Balloon" never quite captures the same magic as that film, when it works it's an utterly magical film to behold.
It works especially well when Juliette Binoche is front and center. In a matter of moments, Binoche explodes across the screen with passion, energy, chaos, innocence, compassion and so much more. While her character, or at least her character's words, seem at times without purpose, Binoche so completely inhabits Suzanne that her mere presence affords Suzanne purpose.
I found myself more troubled by the supporting performances, most notably a far too dry performance by Song Fang as both filmmaker and nanny. In scenes with Suzanne, in particular, the contrast between the two women is jarring and takes away from Hou's stellar mood-setting.
Featuring a strong central performance from Binoche and exceptional use of light from cinematographer Mark Lee, Hou's "Flight of the Red Balloon" is likely to please his legion of fans. Those inexperienced with Hou's films, however, would serve themselves well by catching some of his earlier films first such as "A Time to Live and a Time to Die."
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic