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Originally published Friday, May 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM


Movie review

"Flight" is an homage to Lamorisse's '56 classic "The Red Balloon"

Like a lot of kids in the '60s and '70s, I first saw Albert Lamorisse's 1956 French short, "The Red Balloon," in elementary school ...

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

"Flight of the Red Balloon," with Juliette Binoche, Simon Iteanu, Song Fang. Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien, from a screenplay by Hou and François Margolin, inspired by the film "The Red Balloon" by Albert Lamorisse. 113 minutes. Not rated; contains mild language. In French with English subtitles. Varsity.

Like a lot of kids in the '60s and '70s, I first saw Albert Lamorisse's 1956 French short, "The Red Balloon," in elementary school — back when 16-millimeter prints of that magical, mysterious film provided a memorable introduction to European cinema. I was enthralled, and the stage was set for a lifelong love of movies.

Undoubtedly my affection for "The Red Balloon" (recently released on DVD) made me predisposed to appreciate Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien's "Flight of the Red Balloon," a gracefully contemplative homage to Lamorisse's film. Hou was originally commissioned to create a remake, but while his film owes its spirit and inspiration to Lamorisse, it's also the singular work of its creator, who brings an outsider's perspective to a dreamily Parisian study of everyday lives.

Hou's quietly observant style and avoidance of conventional narrative is an acquired taste. "Flight" received a tepid response from French critics at Cannes last year. Perhaps they felt protective of Lamorisse's film, or had expectations that Hou felt no obligation to meet. The film's international reception has been overwhelmingly positive.

Hou begins, as Lamorisse did, with a child. Seven-year-old Simon (Simon Iteanu) is coaxing a bright red balloon to descend from its perch in a tree, but instead it floats up, up and away, drifting above Paris as a kind of guardian angel. It never strays far from the semichaotic lives of Simon; his frazzled mother, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche); and his new caretaker Song (Song Fang, essentially playing herself), a film student from China who is crafting her own homage to "The Red Balloon."

Played to perfection by Binoche, Suzanne is a loving mother who's too busy creating puppet theater and attending to the simmering crises of her personal life to give Simon all the attention he needs. A frizzy-blond swirl of perpetual anxiety, she entrusts Simon's daily supervision to Song, whose college project (shot with a DV camcorder) is a reflection of Hou's film, which in turn employs reflection (in glass or in thought) as a key to the internal lives of its characters.

To the extent that "nothing really happens" in Hou's film (in the conventional sense, anyway), the pleasures of "Flight of the Red Balloon" lie in attention to details both physical (Suzanne's Parisian flat is a marvel of bohemian disarray) and psychological. Occasionally Hou's restraint makes "Flight" feel vague and elusive, but then he'll surprise you with a masterful shot, a trick of light or a behavioral gesture that feels absolutely right. More often than not, the red balloon appears as a silent, benevolent witness to ethereal moments that Hou has taken great care to capture.

Jeff Shannon:

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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