My third feature by the celebrated Hou. I only half enjoyed/understood the other two, Goodbye South, Goodbye and Flowers of Shanghai, both seen on video, but I appreciated his short The Electric Princess Picture House. So I didn’t know what to think going into this, and neither did anyone, probably, seeing how it’s in French and a semi-remake of a 30-minute children’s classic. Hou’s pacing seems more suited to the big screen than home viewing, so I’m glad it played the Landmark, and Jimmy and I (who saw The Red Balloon together in the same theater earlier this year) both enjoyed it.
Juliette Binoche is a harried puppeteer mother, Simon Iteanu is her son, Hippolyte Girardot (Lady Chatterley, La Moustache) is the downstairs neighbor, and Fang Song is the kid’s new nanny. Song is an aspiring filmmaker with a handicam who loves the film The Red Balloon. Bleach-haired Binoche once worked as an au pair, feels abandoned by her husband, wants to kick out her downstairs neighbor so her older daughter can visit this summer (but can’t find the lease contract), and does marvelous voices for the Chinese puppet show she is directing. Simon seems like a happy kid, takes piano lessons, plays pinball, has a loving relationship with his absent older sister (seen in flashback, she cancels her annual summer trip to Paris late in the movie).
Then there’s the balloon. Simon sees it at the beginning and it follows him on the subway, then to his home and on a class field trip. Song sees it at one point, also… but neither of them ever touches it. It may just be a symbol of imagination, and not a real balloon at all. The camera moves slowly, fluidly, always seeming to hover balloon-like instead of resting, and blobs of red (clothing hanging to dry, a lamp) are often hanging in the frame when the balloon itself is absent.
Just as I was noticing the long length of the shots, a bus with a large Children of Men advertisement drove by – nice. Shot by the cinematographer of most Hou films, Pin Bing Lee, who also did In The Mood For Love with Chris Doyle. Score is light piano music (all staticky on our print), and it closes with the Bobby McFerrin-sounding song from the trailer.
None of these descriptions do justice to the film, which I’m starting to think is one of the few great films I’ve seen this year. Peaceful and calming to watch despite being set mostly in a cluttered, loud, claustrophobic apartment, there’s just enough story/character/action to play upon every emotion in the book without leaning too hard on any of them, leaving me feeling like I’ve experienced & felt so much within such a minimal framework. The characters aren’t desperate, but they don’t have an easy time either. One review described Binoche as a mother under siege, and with all that’s going on around him, Simon’s childhood is under siege too. But even while portraying conflict, the movie manages to ooze joy – so much joy that it’s put a major dent in my plans to watch all the commerce-driven Hollywood product out this summer. How could The Incredible Hulk compare?