The movies of the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien do most of their unspooling at film festivals, where they are savored by a swooning coterie of film critics who then proceed to natter on in print about things like "the optics of ephemerality." According to IMDb, an international critics' poll in 1988 named Hou as "one of the three directors most crucial to the future of cinema."
How embarrassing for these enthusiasts that Hou's latest picture, "Flight of the Red Balloon," is now getting a modest U.S. release, and that a few noncritics might actually see it. I myself have savored none of the man's 18 other movies; maybe they are exquisite. "Red Balloon," however, is one of the most monumentally boring films I've ever forced myself to sit through.
The story, if I may stretch that word for a moment, has a tenuous connection to a famous 1956 French children's film, "The Red Balloon," in which a little boy was followed around Paris by a playful helium-filled orb. Hou's movie, too, is set in Paris, and it has a little boy as well, a 7-year-old named Simon (Simon Iteanu). There's also a red balloon, and at the beginning of the picture, as it bobbles along behind Simon down into the subway, we prepare ourselves to be charmed, as we still are by the 1956 "Red Balloon." Charm, however, is not Hou's strong suit.
So, in short order we're led away to meet Simon's nanny, a Chinese film student named Song, who's studying in Paris. (She's played by Song Fang, who happens herself to be not an actress but a Chinese film student who's studying in Paris.) Then we meet Simon's mother, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), who runs a puppet theater (it's that kind of movie); and we get to contemplate — in long static scenes — the cluttered and claustrophobic apartment in which she and Simon live. The movie is like a documentary about a very dull day. A neighbor and his girlfriend turn up to use Suzanne's kitchen to make a mutton stew. An instructor arrives to give Simon a piano lesson. A blind piano tuner arrives to tune the piano. Eventually, a team of movers arrives to move the piano. (They're played by actual moving men.) Later on, there's also a wizened Chinese glove-puppet master, but let us not linger.
Throughout the movie, which runs nearly two hours and feels like it's reached that mark about 40 minutes in, Hou is scrupulous to give us as little as possible of the information that might help us make sense of what's going on. This pretentious narrative strategy is intensely frustrating. In the film's production notes, the director explains that he actually did lay out the story for the benefit of the actors (or, more accurately, the people who populate the picture). And so they were all aware that Suzanne's parents met in 1968; that they passed on two apartments to her after they divorced; that the mutton couple now live in one of those apartments and are behind in their rent, and Suzanne is having trouble evicting them; that her ex-boyfriend, Simon's father, who has moved to Montreal, is being no help; and that the overburdened Suzanne is going nuts. "Most of this detail," Hou says, with baffling satisfaction, "is never mentioned in the film." Great.
On top of this fundamental incoherence, Hou — also an adherent of the one-take-should-do-it school of direction — has layered another level of tedium: He had the castmembers make up their own dialogue, whatever came into their heads. In the case of the non-actors, of whom there are several, these underenergized maunderings don't amount to much; and even the admirable Juliette Binoche, who gives the only actual performance in the movie, can't enliven the improvised banalities she's called upon to trade with those honest-to-God moving men.
Maybe I'm missing something — "the optics of ephemerality," perhaps. But why should Hou be applauded for disdaining the things that people find enjoyable in movies — an engaging plot, well-crafted dialogue, eloquent action, structured performances — when he has nothing more compelling to offer in their place? Is there something unutterably bourgeois about camera movement (especially in scenes in which precious little else is happening)? Is simple dramatization somehow déclassé? And while it's obviously not necessary to trot out corny tourist vistas, is there any point in shooting Paris, one of the most richly atmospheric of cities, as if it were Pittsburgh?
In the end, there seems only one reasonable response to this movie (and — dark thought — maybe to this director too). That would be: So?
Check out everything we've got on "Flight of the Red Balloon."
Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "Leatherheads," also new in theaters this week.
For breaking news, celebrity columns, humor and more — updated around the clock — visit MTVMoviesBlog.com.