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Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge|The Flight of the Red Balloon

Clear and serene
By PETER KEOUGH  |  April 16, 2008
3.5 3.5 Stars
Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge|The Flight of the Red Balloon

In Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 classic short “Le ballon rouge,” which played at the Kendall Square last November in a restored print, the title toy embodies childhood caprice, innocence, loss, and redemption. In Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s homage, the balloon is no less red and anthropomorphized, but it has receded to the role of a melancholy outsider — peering through windows, bobbing unnoticed along rooftops, a brilliant but oblique punctuation mark on the fretful lives of the film’s human cast.

Such as Suzanne, who’s played by a dyed-blonde, borderline-blowzy Juliette Binoche in one of her earthiest and most appealing performances. An enthusiastic puppeteer, Suzanne is working on a production based on a Chinese fairy tale about all-conquering love. She has less luck pulling the strings of her own life, however: her estranged partner has moved to Montreal and her older daughter lives in Brussels. Only her younger son, Simon (Simon Iteanu), lives with her in the house she unwillingly shares with an obnoxious, rent-skipping tenant, a friend of her ex she’s at a loss to evict.

To help add some order to her unraveling situation, she takes on Song (Song Fang), a film student from Beijing who’s a fan of Lamorisse’s film and plans to make her own homage to “Le ballon rouge.” Given this kind of reflexivity and its child protagonist, Hou’s film seems at times as much an homage to Abbas Kiarostami as to Lamorisse. In one scene Song points out a red balloon painted on a wall and asks Simon whether he’s heard of the film — it’s a representation of an allusion to a memory of a symbolic image from another movie.

Such a multiple remove from a concrete object to various levels of simulation would probably be dizzying or even annoying as posed by any filmmaker other than the great Iranian auteur. But Hou is no slouch at this himself; few artists have captured with such heartbreaking assurance the fluidity of memory and metaphor. Like the red balloon itself, he hovers over the ephemeral beauty and ineffable sadness of his characters even as they aspire to his clarity and serenity. French | 113 minutes | Kendall Square

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