Cinema rarely soothes the heart and mind with the grace and quiet intellect of this wonderful new work from Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Commissioned by Paris’s Musée d’Orsay and taking Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 children’s film ‘Le Ballon Rouge’ as its base, it’s the director’s second project (the first was 2003’s Japan-set ‘Café Lumière’) to be shot outside of his homeland. It’s also one of his finest.
Adopting a typically muted approach to narrative, Hou’s intensely lyrical film offers a tiny window onto the chaotic day-to-day travails of Parisian puppet voice artist Suzanne (Juliette Binoche, at her semi-improvisational best) who is in the midst of dealing with the shifty tenants of her pokey upstairs apartment, an absentee husband and a visiting film student from Taiwan who is babysitting her inquisitive young son, Simon.
It’s a film that basks in the importance of life’s minutiae and gently invites us to draw our own conclusions from the material as we would from a photograph, a painting or a poem; a process that is explained in an ingenious final scene where Simon is told how to deconstruct Félix Vallotton’s painting ‘The Balloon’. Perspective, as Hou affirms, is the key, and as an outsider casting a fresh eye over the City of Lights, he compounds the notion that different people can interpret the same things in completely different ways.
It’s also gorgeously constructed, with burnished russet and gold photography lending the French capital a swooning, dusky hue which is further bolstered by Lee Ping Bing’s long, floating tracking shots and the mournful piano on the soundtrack. It’s an exceptional piece of filmmaking, intricate, elaborate and exuding warmth and wisdom from its every frame.