Flight of the Red Balloon
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Three Times, Cafe Lumiere)
Writers: Hou Hsiao-Hsien, François Margolin
Producers: Kristina Larsen, François Margolin
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Simon Iteanu, Song Fang, Hippolyte Girardot, Louise Margolin, Anna Sigalevitch
MPAA Rating: NR
Running time: 114 min
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reviewed by Andrew James
      I don't mind a slow movie. In fact, quite often I'm in the mood for just that. A rainy Sunday night is the perfect time for such a film and is just what the doctor ordered. A time to revel in its lingering shots of beauty and take your time in enjoying an emotional story that evolves at a snail's pace. The problem comes when A) you don't get at all what you were expecting and B) said story is practically non-existent.

      When the Criterion edition of The Red Balloon was released in late April of 2008, I got quite excited to pick up the DVD and reminisce on a childhood unfortunately long gone. At the same time, I got wind of a sort of modern remake or homage to the story starring Juliette Binoche. Well obviously I couldn't have been happier. So off to the theater I went in search of a nostalgic retelling. Alas, not much further from the original film could a story get.

      The film opens with a young boy straining his arms toward the sky asking a red balloon that is "hiding" in a large tree to come home with him. The balloon refuses and so the boy gives up and goes home. That is the extent to the similarities between this film and the original Red Balloon. The rest of the film revolves around the young boy, Simon, and his life with a new nanny, while his mother (Binoche) struggles to maintain a quality life for herself and her son by working as the voice actor for a local puppet show.

      The story (if you can call it that) deals with daily life and mundane problems of life in a small flat in Paris. Mostly focussing on the advantage taking neighbors downstairs who never pay rent, but insist on using Binoche's kitchen for cooking and entertaining guests. They also allow Simon to use their piano for his weekly music lesson. Occasionally we walk around the town with Simon and his nanny (who is a student film maker that films everything she sees - which alone can be pretty unexciting) or visit Binoche as she does her voice work. The rest of the time is sitting around the apartment chatting about the usual stuff people might chat about after a long day's work (i.e. nothing) or having small snacks and playing video games.

      So yes, the problem isn't the pace of the story; the problem is the story itself. There is no drama, nothing of interest ever happens and while this is a critical word that I almost never use, "boring" comes to mind. After 90 minutes I gave up all hope that the cute red balloon was ever going to show up and create some sort of tension. To make it more clear, there were nine people in the screening that I attended. By the time the credits rolled, there were only three of us left.

      The film is not a complete failure by any means however. It is quite handsomely built and Binoche is fabulous as always; even with the limited amount of drama she's presented with. Watching her do the voice work for several puppets at the same time was a mild treat and seeing her get angry and huff about the apartment in frustration and anger over the neighbors (despite the fact that we just don't care) is slightly entertaining, simply because it is Binoche.

      So I think it just comes down to what the expectations are and if one is not in the mood to just watch people live, this is a tough film to sit through. Pretty and more than competent acting isn't enough to get me to enjoy a film. Something has to happen and I can tell you quite honestly that there is no fun in any flight of a red balloon here.

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