Sunday, September 15, 2013

Flight of the Red Balloon

Originally Written and Posted at on 1/5/09 w/ Additional Edits.

Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien with a script written by Hsiao-Hsien and Francois Margolin, Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge tells the story of a young boy and his new Taiwanese film student/nanny who are enamored with the image of a red balloon. While the boy's mother is preoccupied with her work and squabbles with a neighbor, the boy and nanny find escape into the red balloon they see. Based on the 1956 short film Le Ballon Rouge (The Red Balloon) by Albert Lamorisse, the film is a tribute to Lamorisse's beloved short. Starring Juliette Binoche, Simon Iteanu, Fang Song, Hippolyte Girardot, and Louise Margolin. Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge is a good yet fascinating film from Hou Hsiao-Hsien.

Simon (Simon Iteanu) is walking around Paris as he's enchanted by a red balloon in the trees that flies around the city. A young Taiwanese film student named Song (Fang Song) is hired to be the new nanny for Simon as his mother Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) is running a puppet theater that is about to feature a Chinese play where she will perform all the voices. Yet, Suzanne is also dealing with her estranged ex-husband while her daughter Louise (Louise Margolin) is still in Brussels. The harried Suzanne is also having squabbles with her neighbor Marc (Hippolyte Girardot) who has been using her kitchen and things without her permission. With he and his girlfriend living in an apartment that used to belong with her mother, Suzanne is not happy about the living situation.

With Song taking care of Simon for Suzanne, Song and Simon bond over the red balloon they've been seeing as Song mentions the short film Le Ballon Rouge that she was inspired by for her short about red balloons. With Simon's help, they create a short with her hand-held digital camera. While Suzanne often comes home where a family between her, Song, and Simon is created, she is awaiting for Louise to return to Paris for her studies. Talking to a lawyer, she hopes to get rid of Marc but her ex-husband instead wants to make trouble for her as she's comforted by Simon and Song. Especially when Song transfers old family films into a CD as she is excited to see the short that Song has created while Simon remains mystified by the balloon he has been seeing.

Le Ballon Rouge was a simple thirty-minute film where it just told the story of a boy and the magical red balloon. Remaking that film would be a mistake but a homage to that film is a good idea, but not a great idea. Like Lamorisse's film, there's not much dialogue which can definitely work depending on the length of the film and the strength of the story. The problem that writers Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Francois Margolin does isn't the lack of dialogue but expanding a story that doesn't carry much weight. We have the story of a neglected little boy escaping through the image of a red balloon with help from his Taiwanese nanny who wants to make a short film about the balloon. We also have the story of the mother who is dealing with her occupied life with work, dealing with her ex-husband, and a neighbor/tenant who hadn't been paying his rent and such.

The problem with the film isn't just the fact that there's not much of a plot but there isn't much of a story to really be invested in. While a lot of it is probably due to Hsiao-Hsien's direction, the story tends to meander itself to the point that it loses interest until the balloon reappears to lift up a scene. The scenes involving the balloon is told simply with Hsiao-Hsien's camera as he follows the balloon and its shadow. Yet, it's something that simple and to the point that often carries a sense of interest and wonderment to the film. When the film focuses on the stories of Suzanne and her struggles, it doesn't carry much excitement in comparison to the story about the balloon or the boy's relationship with his nanny. Though the latter doesn't have much depth either but its relationship is still enjoyable to watch because of their interest in the balloon. Despite a lackluster story, Hsiao-Hsien's direction does carry some wonderful, awe-inspiring moments that is purely enjoyable to watch.

Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing with additional work from Yorick Le Saux does create some wonderful shots of Paris in its daytime exteriors while it's the interior shots of Suzanne's apartment that is really enjoyable to watch. With the shading of red-yellow colors with a look of the apartment a mixture of colors, it has a gorgeous look to complement the Chinese play that Suzanne is working on. Editors Jean-Christophe Hym and Ching-Song Liao do some fascinating transition cuts to move one scene to another despite the fact that some shots run a little longer than they intended. Production designer Paul Fayard does excellent work with the film's look of Suzanne's home cropped with books and lots of things to represent her chaotic life. Sound mixer Chu Shih Yi and consultant Jean-Daniel Beccache do excellent work with the location sounds to create the atmosphere of Paris. The film's music is mostly piano-jazz pieces with selections from Le Ballon Rouge.

The casting is definitely inspired with small roles from Anna Sigalevitch as Simon's piano teacher and Louise Margolin as Simon's older sister Louise seen in flashbacks. Hippolyte Girardot is good as Marc, the neighbor who is the brunt of Suzanne's problems as he causes messes in her kitchen and refuses to pay the rent. Fang Song is very good as Song, the nanny and aspiring filmmaker who helps Simon by encouraging in his imagination while learning about the world of Paris. Simon Iteanu is excellent as Simon, the neglected little boy fascinated by the red balloon in which he shares his fascination with his nanny.

Finally, there's Juliette Binoche in an amazing performance as Suzanne. Despite the weakness of the script and lack of story, Binoche's performance is really the highlight of the film as she acts with such charisma and energy. Doing all the voice work in the puppet play scenes, Binoche displays talents that are beyond the capabilities of the average, Hollywood actress. Particularly mixing comedy and drama without going over-the-top or being too restraint. It's a performance that is phenomenal in every scene she's in despite the film's shortcomings.

Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge is a good film from Hou Hsiao-Hsien though fans of his other Asian work might feel a bit disappointed. Fans of Juliette Binoche will be glad to see the actress in another amazing performance that solidifies her as one of cinema's finest actresses. While it's more of a homage to Albert Lamorisse's classic short film Le Ballon Rouge, audiences might want something more though will give Hsiao-Hsien credit for making a worthy tribute. While Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge is a good film with not much to expect, it's more recommended to see Le Ballon Rouge first than Hsiao-Hsien's tribute film.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien Films: (Cute Girls) - (Cheerful Wind) - (The Green, Green Grass of Home) - (The Sandwich Man) - (The Boys from Fengkuei) - (A Summer at Grandpa's) - (A Time to Live, A Time to Die) - (Dust in the Wind) - (Daughter of the Nile) - (A City of Sadness) - (The Puppetmaster) - (Good Men, Good Women) - (Goodbye South, Goodbye) - Flowers of Shanghai - (Millennium Mambo) - (Cafe Lumiere) - (Three Times) - To Each His Own Cinema-The Electric Picture Princess House - (The Assassin (2015 film)

© thevoid99 2013


ruth said...

Interesting that this is an homage to a short film. I might have to check that one out. I like Juliette Binoche, she's so luminous. Not sure I'm intrigued enough in seeing this film though.

thevoid99 said...

Juliette Binoche was one of the things about the film that I liked but I had a lot of issues with it. It's been some years since I've seen it. I remember some people thought it was the best of the year. Really?