Astonishingly, the master Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien and the brain-dead American comic Dane Cook now have only one degree of separation between them. Juliette Binoche jumped from her role opposite Cook in the awful Dan in Real Life to a starring role in Hou's new film, the wonderful, whimsical Flight of the Red Balloon. In 1999, the Village Voice critics' poll chose Hou as the director of the decade, and three of his films placed in the decade's top 100: Flowers of Shanghai (#3), The Puppetmaster (#16) and Goodbye South, Goodbye (#61). That same year, a touring retrospective of Hou's work had the critical community all abuzz, and apparently sold a great many tickets. But Hou's films never found U.S. theatrical distribution until 2004, when his Millennium Mambo opened, with little fanfare, three years after it was made. And then, it was probably due more to beautiful star Shu Qi (The Transporter) than to Hou. Yet I somehow doubt Hou's new brush with fame will help him become any less obscure.
Like Hou's more recent work, Flight of the Red Balloon moves a little more toward international accessibility and away from his early, uniquely Taiwanese stories. It's of a piece with Café Lumiere (2003), for which Hou was invited to Japan to make a film in tribute to Yasujiro Ozu. For the new film, Hou comes to France to pay tribute to Albert Lamorisse's legendary and beloved short film The Red Balloon (1956). (It's not a terribly surprising move, given that French critics and audiences have supported Hou more passionately and for much longer than their American counterparts.) Binoche stars -- in a direct reference to The Puppetmaster -- as Suzanne, a writer and voice actress with a troupe of puppeteers. While her husband, a screenwriter, is away in Canada (and may or may not ever return), Suzanne hires Song (Song Fang) as a nanny for her son Simon (Simon Iteanu). Song is a Taiwanese film student who decides, while in France, to make a film about red balloons.
Miraculously, a red balloon appears every so often and floats around the Paris skyline, though Simon doesn't appear to notice. (He plays pinball or video games instead.) The overall narrative is as aimless and wandering as the balloon. Suzanne works hard at the troupe, and she comes home frazzled, having grabbed snacks or dinner from a nearby café. Binoche is simply miraculous in this role, working in a more improvisatory method than she is used to. She's like a hummingbird, with wild, blonde Texas housewife hair, and low-cut, leopard-skin tops, barely able to stand still or continue a conversation strand for any length of time. She forgets things and waves her hands around to help straighten her thoughts. She does things spontaneously, like move her piano upstairs so that her son's lessons are more convenient. She allows her downstairs neighbor (also her tenant) to use her stove, but yells at him the next day. Her puppet show -- which includes something about boiling the ocean dry -- suits her personality perfectly.
Suzanne clearly adores her son but has little time for him. "Why are you so busy?" he asks her at one point. "Because I have so much to do," she answers as she buzzes about the room. Simon, though he barely gets to see his mother, seems happy enough, and he and Song strike up a quick friendship. He likes to talk about his "sister," a girl he grew up with who isn't really his sister, and he enjoys his fleeting times with her. Like most of Hou's work, these scenes play out like slices of life. He prefers to plant his camera and pan around to take in the scene; he uses very few setups or close-ups. By observing the characters throughout a long scene, and watching how quickly and how often the subject changes, we can learn more about them than through a carefully-scripted and organized back-and-forth conversation.Hou's method is suited to the idea of the red balloon. Only he and Song really notice it or appreciate its flight. The other characters are too busy or too frantic to notice something so delicate or short-lived as a balloon. The film opens with Simon trying to get the balloon down from a lamppost, but unlike the little boy Pascal (Pascal Lamorisse) in The Red Balloon, he quickly gives up and never comes to understand the balloon's magic powers. Regardless of how good this or Hou's other recent films have been, he has never recaptured that buzz from 1999. It could be that those who loved Hou just a few years ago have given up on his ever finding acceptance as an international master, and have written him off as too obscure or too difficult to bother with. Whatever Hou wishes to say with his film, he never comes right out and says it. Are we too busy for balloons these days? Is he saying that the magic is still out there, if only we'd take the time to look? Strangely, Flight of the Red Balloon itself could be one of those magic moments that people could appreciate if only they would take the time. If so, then they too have missed the point of Flight of the Red Balloon.