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Flight of the Red Balloon

It was with great anticipation that I sat down to watch Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon, since I'd read so much critical acclaim of the Taiwanese director but had found my first Hou film (Cafe Lumiere) a cold and largely inaccessible work. The casual viewer may want to stop reading now, because even though Red Balloon is set in Paris and benefits from the warmth of Juliette Binoche in the lead role this isn't the kind of life-affirming French drama we can all cluck over and nominate for an Oscar. (If Hou had directed Amelie, Audrey Tautou would have come off as insane) The sensibility seems resolutely non-Western. Formal, nonjudgmental, and open-ended aren't exactly words associated with the filmography of, say, Jerry Bruckheimer - the point is that if you're not used to Hou's work, settle in for a worthwhile challenge.

Suzanne (Binoche) is a puppeteer and single Mom struggling to find time to care for son Simon (Simon Iteanu), a precocious and sensitive boy. Simon's new Chinese nanny Song (Fang Song) quickly wins the boy's trust and devotion thanks in part to her ever present video camera. Song is making a film about red balloons and the 1956 Albert Lamorisse Red Balloon, a timeless celebration of Parisian childhood. We see clips of Song's work in progress, and Hou also has a red balloon floating over the city at regular intervals as if to suggest that the Lamorisse film's promise of happiness lies outside of Simon's grasp. Suzanne's life is a frenzy of professional and personal complications, including a new puppet show and a delinquent downstairs renter. She means well, but rarely seems to have a moment to connect with her son.

In the closing scene, Simon and a group of classmates visit a museum and view this painting. It's significant that Simon is silent during this scene; instead we here commentary from the teachers and other students on the omniscient point of view and moody feel of the art ("a little bit happy and a little bit sad"). Hou views Simon with the same detachment as the artist does the child in the picture (but with much more compassion), and Simon is of course living out his own balloon pursuits both real and symbolic. The scene is an efficient summing up of this quietly beautiful film, a humanistic masterpiece that cements Hou's reputation as an artist with something to offer the world.

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