Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Coming Attraction: Flight of the Red Balloon

Call it RB2: the Revenge. Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao Hsien has crafted his homage to Albert Lamorisse’s classic short children’s film, The Red Balloon (which was debuted for American audiences on G.E. Theater, with host Ronald Reagan). In truth, it is quite faithful to the gentle spirit of the original, yet Flight of the Red Balloon (trailer here) is somewhat of a departure in many respects.

Superficially, Flight is a simple story. Hou takes us inside a small Parisian family—one that is complicated, but fully functional. Suzanne, an artsy puppeteer played by the film’s only name actor, Juliette Binoche, lives with her son Simon. She hires Song, a Taiwanese film student, as her new child-minder. Though reserved, Song meshes well with their family. As a filmmaker, she is a natural observer, often framing the film’s events for the audience. Most of the family drama happens off-camera, involving Simon’s unseen absentee father, and his half-sister only appearing only in flashback.

Like its inspiration, Flight begins with a boy walking the streets of Paris, finding a red balloon strangely attracted to him. However, after the opening the sequence, the mysterious balloon does not reappear again until roughly midway through the film. It is the shrewdly observed subtleties of Simon’s family that occupy Hou. Those requiring a constant stream of plot twists and turns would probably want to scream during Flight.

Yet in some ways, it is a refreshing film. Although Simon is in many ways more grounded than his dramatic mother, their relationship is a loving one. Likewise, he adores his half-sister Louise. There is no reliance on sibling rivalry or other such clichés as plot devices.

Hou creates some strong visuals, taking advantage of the cinematic potential of Suzanne’s puppet shows, and the enduring beauty of the city of Paris. He is aided by a very evocative classical piano score.

The small cast is excellent, rising to the challenge of Hou’s intimate scrutiny. Binoche conveys Suzanne’s hyper nature, while maintaining both sympathy and credibility with the audience. Young Simon Iteanu as the conveniently named Simon has a remarkably assured screen presence. Likewise, Song Fang as Song brings a sense of intelligence to what could have easily devolved into a stock character.

Flight is a quiet film of discrete charm. Some viewers might respond to it like family, finding it difficult to like, but loving it anyway. It opens April 4th at the IFC Film Center in New York. Those who affectionately remember Lamorisse’s film, and do not suffer from excessive ADD should check it out.