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Honoring the Ancients

Director Hou Hsiao-hsien draws inspiration from French classic


Besides love, nostalgia may be the most marketable human emotion, and no one seems to understand this better than the film industry. Thus, the viewing public is treated to all manner of remake, homage, sequel and re-release. Le Ballon Rouge, a French short subject film that won the 1956 Oscar for best original screenplay despite having negligible dialogue, provides the inspiration for Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien's first European work. But Flight of the Red Balloon is more than a simple remake, with the original film serving as a bass line of sorts off of which Hsiao-hsien improvises, much like a jazz musician will play with the melody of a familiar riff.

Directed by Albert Lamorisse, the original piece was pure whimsy, the story of a sentient balloon that adopts a young boy, acting as his friend and defender and following him throughout the neighborhoods of Paris until a group of bullies cruelly destroys it. Fifty years later, Hsiao-hsien follows Lamorisse's lead in acting as an observer, a silent witness as the tale develops with near-glacial slowness. The storyline is minimal, providing just enough cohesion to anchor this study of desperation and loneliness. Juliette Binoche plays Suzanne, the harried and sporadically affectionate single mother of Simon (Simon Iteanu), who spends his days in the care of Chinese film student Song (portrayed by a wonderful Song Fang). Working as a voice actress for a puppet theater requires Suzanne to spend long hours away while mounting a new show, and Simon and Song spend their time wandering the streets of Paris. As a budding filmmaker, Song uses this opportunity to record Simon as he explores the city, watching a mysterious red balloon that seems to be attracted to him. With a sly bit of inside awareness, Song admits early on that she herself is inspired by Lamorisse's film, helping establish Hsiao-hsien's picture as not a true remake, but rather as using the earlier work as a taking-off point to create his own meditation on urban discontent.

With this slim a plot, a lesser director might have a hard time sustaining an audience's interest, but Hsiao-hsien masterfully draws the viewer along. We genuinely feel sympathy for every character's situation. Reportedly the entire film was improvised, the actors given a scenario and then asked to make up their own lines, and this grants a fervency and sincerity to their interactions. A slower pacing and measured musical interludes help engender in the audience the same atmosphere of quiet anxiety from which Suzanne suffers, while conversely conveying the sort of natural wonder and open possibility which can simultaneously exist with lethargic boredom in a young child with too much free time. The cinematography lends the film a graceful steadiness, the camera seeming to float as easily as the balloon of the title.

Watching the original piece with my own modern sensibilities, I was somewhat disturbed by the idea of a young boy wandering a large metropolis without any indication of supervision. His solitude was only emphasized by the lack of any significant adult presence in the film. But as I watched Hsiao-hsien's version, I couldn't help but compare the boy's physical independence from any mature characters with Simon's emotional distance from Suzanne, her attention being absorbed by work, renter difficulties, and her own estranged relationship with Simon's father. It is these subtle links that truly connect Hsiao-hsien's film with Lamorisse's, and inspire an appreciation for Hsiao-hsien's vision.

There is no other artform that so consciously pays tribute to its past as filmmaking. Inside jokes, thematic references, and even shot-by-shot recreations are so prevalent in modern cinema that dictionary-sized books are dedicated to cataloguing them for the curious reader. In music, poetry and dance, it is almost insulting to be compared with a past master, bringing into question the current artist's originality and innovation. Filmmakers, on the other hand, consider it a high compliment to be termed "Hitchcock-ian" or "Fellini-esque." With a history of scarcely more than 100 years, it is amusing to observe how self-worshipping the entire industry is sometimes. At the same time, a proper respect for the work of the past has led to some wonderful reworkings of great classics. While many remakes are fairly superfluous or downright insulting to the original (Pink Panther, anyone?), there has appeared a new breed of film that draws inspiration from old masterpieces in order to create new stories, rather than merely aping them. Shadow of the Vampire, 12 Monkeys and Irma Vep are all modern examples of original stories that are indebted to a cinematic legacy without becoming subordinate or secondary.

Flight of the Red Balloon falls into this category, a movie that serves as a pleasant reminder of film history while still providing a fresh and original tale. Self-aware without being self-absorbed, the piece stands as the work of a mature and talented filmmaker. Hsiao-hsien is a melancholic master, and we can only hope that this is the first of his Western oeuvre.