Of the main figures in Hou Hsiao- hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon–a single mother in Paris, her 7-year-old son, the young Chinese woman who works as the boy’s nanny–I suspect it’s the title character with whom Hou identifies. In memory of Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon, Hou has set loose one of his own in the city; and the toy’s way of weaving in and around the story seems much like the movement of his attention, as it bobs inquisitively close to people or wafts out of their reach, descends toward the paving stones or rises high over the roofs.
Granted, there are differences between the floater and the filmmaker. Although the red balloon that starred in the Lamorisse film is famously native to Paris, Hou is a stranger here, having built his great career almost entirely in Taiwan. If not for the suggestion (or whim) of a French producer, he might never have made the movie, which has him working in a European location for the first time. But perhaps for that reason, Hou the outsider has adopted a teasing, playful, deliberately ungrounded viewpoint in Flight of the Red Balloon. He comes and goes so freely that you may be surprised, near the end, to realize how deeply he’s drawn you into a down-to-earth story. A woman has stood up for herself and is stronger for it, if also a bit lonelier and a little more disillusioned.
For narrative purposes, this woman has been called Suzanne; but she’s really Juliette Binoche, who has turned herself into a shaggy blonde for the occasion and dressed in a disarray of bosom-exposing sweaters. From this get-up, you may read the hectic daily improvisation of Suzanne’s life, as well as her sexual self-assertion in the face of mounting challenges: abandonment, middle age, a habit of snacking at all hours. Suzanne’s supposed partner, the father of little Simon (Simon Iteanu), is never seen, having run off to Montreal to write a book on a suspiciously prolonged deadline. Her previous lover has vanished entirely, leaving nothing behind except a teenage daughter, who lives in Brussels and is absent for most of the year. Suzanne’s life has become an anxious round of rushing to and from work, caring as best she can for Simon, fighting with the deadbeat tenants downstairs (who maddeningly pretend to be her friends) and muttering furiously about the condition of her apartment. Imagine a tunnel-like storage closet fitted with two rickety lofts where you can sleep, or break your neck trying.
Change the language, and you’ve got a situation Hou could have dramatized in Taipei, where he probably would have tucked his characters just as snugly into their unglamorous quarters. You might call his movies pre-inhabited; he often says that he can’t begin filming them until he knows the precise location of each room and piece of furniture in his setting, along with the exact routine of the people using the space. Just so, even though Suzanne and Simon reside in Paris, you feel they must have lived for years in this fictitious apartment before Hou showed up with his camera. The poster tacked on the front door has the look of a decoration that long ago became invisible. The old wooden table, used for meals and work alike, is flanked by three matching chairs, plus an odd fourth that settled in years ago with its own mute history. I’d guess about a third of the film passes inside this neo-Taiwanese residence, where Hou never yields to the allure of the movies’ mythical Paris except to stage infrequent visits from the red balloon. It hovers over the skylight of Simon’s sleeping loft or drifts, unseen, past the courtyard window.