"Flight of the Red Balloon": Fantastic Voyage By Joel Poblete

in 52nd Valladolid International Film Festival

by Joel Poblete

In an inconsistent official section — that nevertheless offered many attractive and valuable titles — the Asian cinema returned to confirm itself as a fountain of risk and originality, even if it was necessary to demand at the maximum of some viewers’ patience. It’s true that on one side was present the most traditional current of the Eastern cinema, represented for Yoji Yamada’s Love and Honor (Bushi no ichibun), a beautiful but languid and extremely long samurai story; but the most demanding Asian cinema arrived with Naomi Kawase’s The Mourning Forest (Mogari no mori), a quiet and delicate tale that exasperated a large number of the public at Valladolid.

The Japanese director maybe didn’t reach the strength that she had achieved in such films as Shara (Sharasojyu), but nevertheless the film captivates thanks to some subtle and poetic moments. More effective and inspired was Hou Hsiao-hsien’s new work, Flight of the Red balloon (Le voyage du ballon rouge), that finally won the Seminci’s FIPRESCI prize.

Even if it can’t surpass the best films that he has made in more than two decades of filmmaking — A Time To Live, a Time to Die (Tong nien wang shi), The Puppetmaster (Hsimeng jensheng), Millennium Mambo (Qianxi manbo) — Hou was responsible for the most beautiful and purely cinematographic moments in the official competition. First, because this minimalistic and simple story is a tribute to a true classic, The Red Balloon (Le ballon rouge), the charming and unforgettable short film that Albert Lamorisse premiered in 1956, shown in a parallel section of this festival. Paris as the main stage, and the relationship between a little boy and a red balloon, is the starting point of both films.

If Flight of the Red Balloon were only a homage film to a classic, its real value would be reduced; but besides that it surprises and moves in how it portrays such a simple and daily reality as the one of Suzanne (a blonde Juliette Binoche, always believable in her emotions), Simon’s mother. Suzanne has a strong personality, loves her son a lot, gets on very well with Song, the Taiwanese nanny, and tries to lead a normal life, though Simon’s father is absent. And that’s the whole story, because as a matter of fact here the anecdote is minimal, with only three characters of real importance, and Hou’s camera moving with serene cadences like the red balloon that appears at different moments in images of a delicate and sometimes melancholic poetry, accentuated by the music that accompanies them.

On the surface there are not too many things happening, and everything seems to be only a subtle reflection of Suzanne and her son’s everyday life, guided with a slow and introspective pace, that doesn’t fear dead time and silence. But it’s in this simplicity, in the unpretentious way that Hou develops his story, where the biggest appeal lies, where the filmmaker’s talent is proven once again. There are few directors that can stay faithful to their style while filming in a country so apparently far from their own origins and culture, and even fewer are those that can put their mark on a made-to-order project like this.

Flight of the Red Balloon is the first in a series of films commissioned by the Parisian Musée d’Orsay. Hou maintains his way of filming, but this time searching for a certain French “style” (Assayas, maybe?), always avoiding making it look like an empty and pretentious exercise. He expresses an evident fascination for the French capital, but not in a touristic as we have seen so many times in Hollywood movies set in Paris. Hou’s look is direct and curious, but always cautious, paying attention to small and apparently insignificant details, recording everyday conversations; even from the beginning, when Simon talks to the balloon that is trapped in one of the exits of the Métro in the Place de la Bastille, we can recognize some typical places of the City of Light, but this is only the context in which Suzanne, her son and Song moves.

The more obvious would be thinking of Song as Hou’s alter ego, because she works in cinema, comes from Asia and is a foreigner in Paris; or maybe that this curious and eager look of Hou, which can be defined as childlike and wise at the same time, is also be identified with that of little Simon. Suzanne, Song and Simon are connected by the different ways of visual representation: the little Eastern puppet theater where the mother uses her voice; the magical images caught by Song’s camera; and the paintings that Simon and his classmates look at during a visit to the museum. The purity of images, and their power of evocation: this is finally the propelling force of this new work by a truly inspired filmmaker.