Sunday, March 30, 2008

On Desire's Wings: Flight of the Red Balloon

“You know, grown-ups are a bit complicated,” a frazzled Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) tells her 7-year-old, mop-headed son Simon (Simon Iteanu) in Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao Hsien’s exquisite, spectacular little gem Flight of the Red Balloon (inspired by French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 short “The Red Balloon”). This from a woman stuck in her own childhood world – a small, cluttered Parisian apartment (Simon gingerly steps over her books not any toys), a silver “magic box” in which she keeps super 8 reels of her puppeteer grandfather, a job that allows her to spend her days voicing Asian puppet shows. Her significant other Pierre is off in Montreal finishing a never-ending novel, leaving her with a downstairs freeloading tenant (a struggling screenwriter) named Marc who – like everyone else in her life – pops in unannounced. Her daughter Louise from an earlier relationship is living with her own father in Brussels. From the fairytale cobblestone streets of Paris, to the ancient puppet plays, to her nearly bohemian commune lifestyle (in several scenes Simon wears a T-shirt reading, “Change The World”), Suzanne seems to forever exist in an earlier time – or in a state of timelessness itself.

Into this situation walks Song (Song Fang), a film student from Beijing hired as Simon’s nanny, and not incidentally, a stand-in for the director himself, as Song also happens to be making a film about red balloons (she studied Lamorisse’s short at school, and Suzanne tells Song that her first short “Origins” reminded her of childhood). Soon enough Song is capturing the everyday moments of Simon’s childhood. A stroll through a park becomes an opportunity for Simon to expound upon his mother’s favorite statue, one depicting a puppet show. (Later when someone drops by their red and yellow decorated home asking for Suzanne, Simon nonchalantly offers, “She’s probably tied up with her puppets.”) When Simon becomes engrossed in a game of pinball at a café Hou’s camera witnesses the scene from outside through the windowpane, the sunlight’s reflection rendering Song who stands beside Simon, shooting from her own small digital cam, a mere ghost. In fact, “Flight of the Red Balloon,” is visually packed with windows, with mirrors and puppets – forming a narrative of life through reflection and allegory. The titular red balloon is only seen sporadically, in the opening as Simon tries to coax it down from a tree as he stands outside a subway stop surrounded by the roar of traffic, in an “over the shoulder” shot as the balloon frantically “searches” for Simon on the platform of the next stop, flying high above the slanted Parisian rooftops, between the red curtains of an apartment window. And yet, like an omnipresent angel from Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire,” that balloon is deeply felt in each and every frame.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of “Flight of the Red Balloon” is how Hou takes advantage of his “outsider” status – as a Taiwanese director in Paris paying tribute to a French film – to endow all his images with a fresh childlike wonder. The west is seen through an eastern lens with special attention paid to the different rhythms of people and puppets, the balloon and the city itself. Like a tapestry the multi-layered story is intricately woven into the many low angle, “kid” POV shots, the smooth flowing pans and tilts that soothe like a lullaby. The lilting piano that forms the soundtrack parallels Simon’s piano lessons, a bus displays an ad for “Children of Men” (in French). The spontaneity of words is preserved through Hou’s approach to working with actors – creating an already lived-in environment into which they simply step inside. Hou has said he chooses the precise locations and explores them thoroughly (even down to the exact time Simon’s school is dismissed for the day) before he even begins the script. The characters’ back-stories are so rigorously defined, the narrative foundation so firmly in place that the actors are free to improvise, to let the stories unfold organically as in real life. We aren’t “told” of Suzanne’s situation but given crumbs to follow until a clear picture of her emerges. (How do we know Louise is her daughter from an earlier relationship? Because Simon describes Louise as “kind of my sister.”) Nothing “big” happens – for it’s the little things in life that are so momentous!

Little things like keeping a piano in tune. My favorite scene is one that starts with Song escorting a blind Asian man (the piano tuner) over to the instrument. As he sets about his work a visitor comes by unannounced to ask for Suzanne then quickly leaves. A harried Suzanne soon flies through the door still in a heated argument with Marc. By the time she slams the door in his face Simon is on the phone with Louise – who then speaks to Suzanne to tell her she isn’t planning to move back in with her after all. But the most jolting moment of all is when Suzanne suddenly acknowledges the piano tuner with an apology. It’s only then when the realization dawns that the tinkling of the piano keys had been a nearly imperceptible accompaniment to the chaos all along, as abrupt a revelation as when Suzanne implores, “Can you get it back in tune?”

And isn’t that what the longing to capture and extend childhood is really all about? To be transported to a time and place in which the sour notes of adulthood are unknown. Even as Hou “dismantles” the magic – we see puppeteers manipulating their puppets, Song explains why she has a man in green holding the red balloons (so she can digitally erase him later) – he adds to it, yin-and-yang-like. One cannot “explain away” a kid’s make believe world. Towards the end on a field trip to a museum when Simon’s teacher uses a picture of a child chasing a red balloon as an opportunity to give a lecture on angles and perspective, a distracted Simon looks up. With a fluid tilt we’re taken upwards to the glass ceiling where the red balloon hovers outside, always patiently waiting to be discovered anew. “Flight of the Red Balloon” truly is a love letter to filmmaking – its magic above its tricks.

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