Friday, January 7, 2011

Flight of the Red Balloon

I saw a film at the Phyllis Wattis Theater in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The MOMA is currently having an exhibit called How Wine Became Modern. Part of the exhibit included a two-part film program called Red and White; as in red and white wine.

The first part of Red and White featured two Albert Lamorisse films - Le ballon rouge (The Red Balloon) 1957, 34 minutes and Crin Blanc (White Mane), 1953, 40 minutes. I missed the films that evening. I was able to watch the second part of the program.

Le voyage du ballon rouge (Flight of the Red Balloon) starring Juliette Binoche; directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien; French and Mandarin with subtitles; (2008) - Official Website

I don't go to MOMA as often as I should. I will sometime stop in during my lunch hour. The last exhibit I saw was Calder to Warhol. The last film I watched at MOMA was Russian Ark in January. It was fitting that I bookend 2010 with film trips to MOMA. The film programming at MOMA is, generally, not my cup of tea.

However, the opportunity to see the most recent feature-length film by Hou Hsiao-hsien was enticing. The crowd was sparse although that may have been due to the calendar. The week between Christmas and New Years is a strange time in San Francisco. The commute traffic is non-existent and the Financial District looks like a ghost town. This true for many large cities. I always wonder what these "missing" people. Are there small towns across the USA with horrendous crowds of visiting expatriates from metropolitan areas? Maybe the streets in the suburbs are clogged with people who stay home from work and the City.

Getting back to the film, Le voyage du ballon rouge is Hou's homage to Lamorisse's Le ballon rouge. I recall seeing, at least parts of, Le ballon rouge as a child but cannot remember it well. I wish I could have stopped by to see it at the MOMA screening to provide some background for Le voyage du ballon rouge.

Le voyage du ballon rouge follows the harried life of Juliette Binoche who is running a theater company that performs with puppets. She also is having trouble with one of her tenants at the apartment building she owns and is also trying to get her oldest daughter to return to Paris from Brussells. To help her, she hires Song, a Chinese film student studying in Paris, to be her son's nanny. Although Binoche and a number of characters appear, the story revolves around Song and the boy, Simon...and a curious red balloon that shows up everywhere they go although they barely acknowledge it. Song makes reference to Le ballon rouge so I wonder how the boy in that film compares to Simon.

Anyway the film seems to have two axes - the serene life of Song, Simon and the balloon as they stroll through Paris and the busy, slightly irritated life of Suzanne (Binoche) that Song & Suzanne (but not the balloon) are drawn into. The scene that clearly defines the duality is when a blind piano tuner stops by. Song is busy in the kitchen, Simon is reading or playing a game on the living room floor and the tuner is striking notes softly. Then Binoche arrives with her angry tenant in tow. They argue loudly at the door before Binoche slams the door on him. Then she has an argument with her daughter over the phone.

The film has a "slice of life" quality. It's as if the audience is catching a normal period in the lives of the people invovled. I began to believe the balloon is a figment of Simon's imagination or a prop in the amateur movie that Song is making featuring Simon and the balloon as opposed to some inexplicable but sentient being. Eventually, it doesn't matter. The balloon is a plot device that carries extra importance because the director is Hou Hsiao-hsien and the film is paying tribute to Le ballon rouge. The story could have been told without the balloon. It added a visual cue that could be interpreted a few ways.

Ignoring the references to the Lamorisse film, I enjoyed Le voyage du ballon rouge on its own merits and was impressed by how Hou's Taiwanese New Wave aesthetic translated to a contemporary Paris. You can't go wrong praising a Hou Hsiao-hsien film so I'll echo the chorus but withhold full praise. I didn't think this was one of Hou's strongeest films. Chronicling a bourgeois French family doesn't seem as dramatic as the effect of Kuomintang attrocities on a Taiwanese family.

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