'Flight of the Red Balloon': A Soaring Achievement

Song Fang, center, and Juliette Binoche in Hou Hsiao-hsien's homage to the 1956 classic.
Song Fang, center, and Juliette Binoche in Hou Hsiao-hsien's homage to the 1956 classic. (Photos By Tsai Cheng-tai -- Ifc Films)
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By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 18, 2008

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean everyone isn't plotting against you. And just because you're a cynic doesn't mean that what you suspect about the culture isn't true: That the worst movie of a weekend usually rakes in the most cash. That the biggest advertising war chest generally determines victory at the box office (even more so than at the polling place). That glitz is the engine of the zeitgeist.

Given all this, Hou Hsiao-hsien's "Flight of the Red Balloon," which opens today, should be one of the biggest disasters in the history of motion pictures. A belly-up catastrophe. Flames, smoke, wreckage. Why? Because it's one of the most beautiful movies ever made. Because it's a work of art on the order of a poem by Yeats or a Rothko painting. Because it implies that what we usually consider accomplished cinema is the artistic equivalent of a cave drawing; that Hou is a string quartet, trying to drown out a cosmic drum circle.

According to the water cooler theory of weekend movie marketing -- that we watch what we think our friends will watch so we can talk about it on Monday -- there's no reason to see "Flight of the Red Balloon." Until Palm Pictures released "Millennium Mambo" (2001) and IFC Films began distributing Hou's movies with "Three Times" (2005), the Taiwanese director had virtually no U.S. distribution. He would play festivals, and be ignored -- or worse, be critiqued by influential publications and their in-house knuckleheads. "Oh, yeah, such-and-such blew it off in four paragraphs," a reviewer for a major newspaper said at the New York Film Festival in 1998, speaking of his paper's fifth-string critic and Hou's exquisite "Flowers of Shanghai." Bad review, no release in this country, entire nation deprived of Hou Hsiao-hsien.

But so what? Hou will not be appearing anytime soon on "Access Hollywood," will not be competing on "Dancing With the Stars," and has not, as far as we know, been frequenting any of the better Brentwood rehab facilities. That his movies are like the ocean -- rhythmic, hypnotic, seemingly pacific yet roiling with color, motion and drama -- should be of no interest to anyone.

But let's say that it is. What's under there, in the feral-yet-philosophic undertow of "Red Balloon"? For one thing, Juliette Binoche -- an actress this critic has never associated with the word "gifted," but whose performance, in what is ostensibly a homage to Albert Lamorisse's 1956 kid classic, "The Red Balloon," is astounding. Her character, Suzanne, is only one mechanism in the movie's baroque and buoyant flight plan, of course. But Binoche is also the brassy blond earth goddess who keeps it grounded.

Around her orbit the people she has pushed away or will: Her unseen husband, Pierre, a writer-in-residence somewhere in Montreal, who is clearly never coming back to Paris. Louise (Louise Margolin), her daughter by an earlier association, is in Brussels, and in no hurry to rejoin her mother either. Suzanne's young son, Simon (Simon Iteanu), whom we see first, trying to coax his red balloon out of a tree by the Metro, is too young to make decisions or draw conclusions, but he has recently come under the care of Song (Song Fang), a film student turned child minder who is everything Suzanne is not: dark and lithe where Suzanne is sexy and blond; serene where Suzanne is hysterical.

Suzanne is a producer of puppet theater (one of Hou's early masterpieces was 1993's "The Puppetmaster"), for which she acts as impassioned, scenery-chewing voice artist. Song makes films -- the scenes we see of Simon at the start are actually part of the film she's making, a homage, again, to Lamorisse's "Red Balloon." What Song represents, as do the hundred mirrored surfaces against which Hou shoots this film (windows, windshields, GameBoy screens, pinball machines), is reflection. Suzanne practices none; Song perhaps too much; Simon will one day recall it all, and ask what "Flight of the Red Balloon" asks -- which is "If . . . ?"

If he had waited at the Metro, would he have had his red balloon? If there hadn't been a pane of glass on the train, would the balloon have followed him aboard? The balloon in Hou's story plays a far smaller role that in its predecessor, but it means the same thing: happiness. The palette of Hou's film, uniformly earthy, is meant to make the color red pop -- as it does, out of stop lights, ads, a bicycle, a dress -- and once you key into it, you can ignore neither it nor its message: That when you finally recognize happiness, you can find it everywhere.

Color is, obviously, a huge part of "Flight of the Red Balloon," despite its largely autumnal hue. Although this is Hou's first Western film, it's not coincidence that red symbolizes good luck in Chinese culture. Green, of the type that advertises French pharmacies -- and which is red's opposite on the color wheel, by the way -- is the only tone competing for prominence in "Flight of the Red Balloon." It's also the color with which Song dresses Simon when he carries the balloon through her film -- because it's the color that she can erase later, via computer (see: green-screening). What will be left is an image of a red balloon, floating boy-less through Paris. This artificial erasure of green -- a.k.a. unhappiness -- echoes Suzanne, and the way she rationalizes the misjudgments of her life or makes herself frantic in an effort to distract others and herself from what's really going on.

Movie make-believe and "real" make-believe collide blissfully in "Flight of the Red Balloon," a movie constructed out of refracted perceptions and playful perspectives, making the distance between art and life virtually indiscernible. "The Flight of the Red Balloon" is life, in reflection.

Flight of the Red Balloon (113 minutes, in French with English subtitles, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated and contains vulgar language.

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