Ostensibly an homage to the fifty years old classic The Red Balloon, this is the kind of tribute that only Hou Hsiao Hsien would devise for his first fully French-speaking and produced picture.
Albert Lamorisse's lyrical, dialogue-less half hour survey of Paris in the fifties, in which the director followed his own son and a red balloon attached to the boy along the streets of Paris, was for many years a worldwide favorite of cinematheques and art cinemas.
Hou's version seems at first more conventional than the original, a full two hours feature film, with a distinct unifying plot focusing on a puppeteer and her son, plenty of dialogues between the characters, and a star, Juliette Binoche, to help put it all across.
At second glance, the film is packed with reflections about cinema and art, references to the past and the present, fluid flashbacks that slip seamlessly in and out, and glimpses behind the magic that artists are supposed to work on their customers.
Don't wait for this one at your neighborhood cinemas for it won't fit on their screens, but like any Hou picture, art houses and festivals are already making room to accommodate him next season.
As you might suspect, this is no longer the tale of a boy and a red balloon wandering at their ease in the City of Lights. The balloon is there for the pre-credits sequence, takes off for the next hour, returns for a brief visit, goes away again to come back only for the finale.
Now, the picture is much more about Simon (Iteanu), a cute elementary school kid and his harassed single mother, Suzanne (Binoche), who is putting together her next puppet show, derived from a classical Chinese tale.
To help her out with the boy, she hires a full time baby sitter, Song (Song Fang) unsurprisingly Chinese, also a cinema student and as such, the best dramatic excuse to discuss both China and cinema in the film.
Most of the picture takes place in Suzanne's flat, though there are occasional city expeditions, one of them to the Musee d'Orsay, others to her rehearsals. Suzanne's relations with her invasive tenants who won't pay their rent, her flamboyant vocal performance behind the scenes at the puppet theatre, Simon's flipper fascination and his affection for an older sister living with her grandfather in Brussels, and other characters who briefly pop in once in a while, offer altogether a completely different Parisian collage than Lamorisse's old one.
It all makes for an outsiders' viewpoint, impressed less by the city and more by the people living in it, stressed, constantly pushed around by economic restrictions and facing family complications.
Hou's light hand and intimacy with his characters is evident all through, Mark Lee Ping Bing's unobtrusive camera comes up some astoundingly poetical images towards the end, and Binoche is in complete control of her part, not least, probably, because Hou tends to work on his dialogue with his actors, thus giving them a better chance to express themselves.
Les Films Du Lendemain
Hou Hsiaou Hsien
Mark Lee Ping Bing
Liao Ching Sung