Flight of the Red Balloon, by Michael Phillips of Chicago Tribune

e warned: Many viewers of the film, which premiered last year at the Cannes Film Festival and then made its North American debut at the Toronto festival, have been known to struggle with its rhythm. (The film is also available via pay-per-view on cable TV.) While he works in many styles and keys, Hou is a patient man, and he does not jam his subjects into the usual story "beats" or a conventional narrative. His films, at least the several I've seen, work like music. "Three Times," a fantastic trio of love stories enacted by the same performers, is a sort of symphony of longing. "Flight of the Red Balloon" proceeds as a chamber piece of unusual lightness, its tinge of melancholy truly earned and never forced.

Like his earlier film "The Puppetmaster," "Flight of the Red Balloon" concerns artists who work with puppets and whose lives feed on theatrical artifice. The superlative Binoche plays Suzanne, who lives in a Paris flat with her preteen son, Simon (Simon Iteanu). She runs a puppet theater while running her life in perpetual whirlwind mode. Her lover is away in Montreal and may or may not be coming back.

Meantime a new nanny has arrived. She is Song (Song Fang), a filmmaking student from Taiwan, who turns her camera on her new city, recording footage recalling "The Red Balloon" (directly referenced throughout, without ever becoming a crutch). Like Simon she is a gentle soul, contrasting mightily with the blowsy Suzanne, who creates little storm patterns of chaos in whatever room she's just come into.

Much of the film, lit with a subtle shimmer by cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing, is photographed in the apartment building as various workaday characters come and go: a piano teacher, a pair of piano movers, a solicitor helping Suzanne figure out what to do about her deadbeat tenants downstairs (one of whom may be an ex-lover). We learn bits of these characters' backgrounds, and in delicately woven flashback Hou's film shows us Simon with his stepsister, who comes to visit every summer. Such scenes are not mined for their sentimental value; they're simply there to show us a fuller picture of one boy's life.

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'Flight of the Red Balloon'


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