After years of Tarantino twists and shot-for-shot shams, homage has gotten a bad name. Let's call Flight of the Red Balloon something else: a transportation device in which Paris, Albert Lamorisse's beloved 1956 slice of magical realism The Red Balloon, and a patchwork family float in and out of Hou Hsiao-hsien's inscriptive view. At 61, the former Taiwanese new wave pacesetter is on a travel kick. After moving to Tokyo to film 2003's Café Lumière, his tribute to Yasujiro Ozu, the filmmaker next went to Paris, thanks to a commission by the Musée d'Orsay. Flight of the Red Balloon's reception at Cannes was lukewarm, but away from that hothouse it's plainly a masterwork. Mysterious without being opaque, it is as delightful in its particulars as in its overall musical intelligence.
It starts simply, with a boy and a balloon. The red orb reappears periodically in Hou's film, like a refrain, but this prologue provides the fullest convergence with Lamorisse's original. A sleepy-eyed child calls out to the air before descending the Metro steps; the camera pans up, catches a first glimpse of the talisman as it lingers behind wind-brushed trees, and then follows it across the rooftops of an overcast Paris.
The balloon retreats, but Hou's camera stays alight. We soon find the boy, Simon, living in a jumbled apartment with his mother Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), a blustery creative type who voices puppet shows. She has engaged a young Chinese filmmaker as Simon's nanny: Song Fang (playing herself) is first seen entering Suzanne's puppet theatre, her oval visage shrouded in the richly-toned shades of black typical of Hou's collaborations with cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bin.
The conflicts within this autumnal story world pass at a remove. Hou wryly observes aspects of Parisian life (a downstairs neighbor unable to ask a simple kitchen favor without detailing his mutton stew, for example), but doesn't tether his film to such observations. Instead he emphasizes resonant textures: the musical interplay between the relaxed camerawork and Binoche's breathy, bleached-blond performance; the lyrical enfolding of a child's half-comprehending, absorbed perspective with that of a foreigner's; and too many paired scenes and visual echoes to count, including a couple of lovely pirouettes up and down a spiral staircase. Throughout, Hou's inclusive model of filmmaking draws from painting, music, and puppetry. Whenever he ventures into the mother and child's apartment, currents of light and color are pitched between minimalism and reverie.
Much like some of this season's other film highlights (In the City of Sylvia, Alexandra, Paranoid Park), Hou's latest foregoes plot restrictions for acute ambience and sustained portraiture. I didn't respond to Flight of the Red Balloon as quickly as I did to the others, but it's the one I most want to revisit. Diffuse yet deep, Hou's vision erases the boundaries between his film and the worlds that surround it.
The red balloon of The Red Balloon beckons, but Hou's film also bears a surprising resemblance to Olivier Assayas' Irma Vep (1996) in its skipping ellipticism, its depiction of a detached Asian woman swimming amid unkempt Parisians, its utterly free way of withholding story information and averting linearity, and its double-exposed invocation of a past French film classic. Assayas is no stranger to Hou's work, having made a documentary about the Taiwanese director in 1997 (HHH), but their unique sensibilities impart common materials with entirely different moods. Where Irma Vep radiates frenetic energy, Hou's profoundly subdued film lingers in the drowsy quiet of afternoon. In this respect, Flight of the Red Balloon also reminds me of another French film about childhood, stasis, and puppet shows: François Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959).