Flight of the Red Balloon: The Return of Hou Hsiao-hsien

The Red Balloon was the art-house E.T. of 1956. Flight of the Red Balloon is something far more baffling—a literal-minded movie with an amiably free-floating metaphor. Chinese grandmaster Hou Hsiao-hsien, who only screened The Red Balloon after he was commissioned to remake it by the Musée d'Orsay, has said the film shows the "cruel realities" of childhood. His own version begins as fantasy, as 7-year-old Simon (Simon Iteanu) addresses the otherwise unnoticed scarlet sphere drifting overhead, and then casually naturalizes, tracking the boy over the roofs of Paris to contemplate the untidy existence he shares with his mother Suzanne (Juliette Binoche). The movie is animated not only by the hide-and-seek antics of the red balloon but also by Binoche's extravagant turn as a frazzled performance artist. Played with total self-absorption and a corresponding absence of vanity, Suzanne is a harried composition in frowsy blonditude, filmy scarves, and mad décolletage—the most dynamic female protagonist in the Hou oeuvre. Suzanne's situation may be an emotional jumble, but, untethered by mundane reality, the balloon is free to roam. In its unexpected rhythms and visual surprises, its structural innovations and experimental perfs, its creative misunderstandings and its outré syntheses, Flight is a movie of genius. It is in a class by itself.

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