Early in Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon, an aspiring filmmaker working on a project is paid the ultimate compliment: "It reminded me of childhood." The beauty of Hou's picture has some of that wonder, a feeling of fresh-eyed curiosity for a world in which a floating crimson sphere can compete with a PlayStation for a child's attentions. The jumping-off point is The Red Balloon, Albert Lamorisse's acclaimed 1956 parable about a lonely Parisian boy who befriends a magic inflatable with a life of its own. For his first European film, the Taiwan-based director was commissioned by the Musée d'Orsay to remake it: Hou kept the boy and the balloon, and proceeded to translate the whole thing into his own poetry. The red balloon itself has been modified from tag-along chum to spectral observer, careening over the skyline and occasionally dropping by outside a window, literally a free-floating metaphor. It's a lovely sight, although Hou's interests lie primarily with people -- Juliette Binoche as a single-mother artist and Simon Iteanu as her seven-year-old son form the frazzled, fractured family at the picture's axis, Song Fang as the Beijing film student working as a part-time nanny is the calm observer. There are glimpses of parks and museums, but Paris here is distilled to Binoche's attic-flat, the camera facing the living room table with a rectangle of kitchen glimpsed on the right, a staircase on the left, and stacks of books everywhere; Hou ponders this space with prodigiously patient tracks and pans, through it pass drama, sunlight, life.
Hou's France in Flight of the Red Balloon is a visitor's beatific evocation, like Renoir's India in The River. While in My Blueberry Nights Wong Kar-wai could still fall back on his affinities with American cinema, Hou's stance here is that of an authentic outsider, not lost but tenderly detached, seeing things that might elude most Parisians. (What French director would have paused for the brass ring of a carousel, or positioned his camera so that the children riding the wooden horses come charging right at it with their little batons?) Plot is minimized (Binoche has some trouble with the downstairs tenants -- that's it), all the better for Hou to focus on the flow of the characters through remarkably graceful scrims. People are physical presences as well as reflections on a window pane, intimate and distant. Binoche, brassily blonde and tough and flighty, reaching for a biscuit or drinking water from a faucet, is certainly the most eccentric of Hou's heroines -- a splendid long-take finds her as she supplies the spirited vocals at a Chinese-style puppet theater rehearsal, her voice taking the shapes of mythical characters. Another virtuosic, extended sequence has the living room receiving layer after layer of human bustle, from Song editing footage on her laptop to the blind tuner quietly calibrating the family piano: Binoche enters, exhausted after a confrontation, and locates a peaceful oasis in a hug from her son. "Adults can be very complicated," she sighs to him, yet children for Hou are scarcely simplistic, and Iteanu is no cute child-actor but a half-hidden creature, fond of pinball and Charles Aznavour tunes and as mysterious as anybody else in the city. In a picture of such inner glow, a balloon with a mind of its own is only one of innumerable drifting revelations.
Redbelt may share the color of Hou's balloon, but its metaphors are far less buoyant. (It doesn't take long for the noble protagonist to be likened to a samurai.) "The fight is the issue." "Improve the position." "There's always an escape." David Mamet's dialogue-driven hostility is considered dazzling by many, but on the screen his lines have always struck me like cinder blocks dropped on the knees, and his self-directed films (Things Change, Homicide, The Spanish Prisoner) merely show how uncinematic brilliant writing can be. In his new film's jujitsu ring, however, he's found not just an ideal arena for his view of human interaction (with ample space for his beloved rules, repetitions, and double-crosses), but also a way to turn his theatrical abstractions into visceral bouts. The filmmaker's proxy is a martial-arts teacher (the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor) trying to hang on to his honor in big, bad L.A.; not only is a principled warrior's purity ("Competition is cheapening") seen as unpractical by his Brazilian wife (Alice Braga), it actually triggers a series of events involving rotten movie stars and suicidal pupils that lands him in the soulless ring. As much a show-biz allegory as an underdog rouser, Redbelt posits athletic fraudulence and Hollywood perfidy as twin corruptors. Sturdy performances (props to my compatriots Braga and Rodrigo Santoro for mastering the Mamet rhythm) and a true feeling of outrage and idealism in a degraded world rescue the film from its own conceptual sterility as a self-portrait of martyred integrity, which is not alleviated by Mamet's clumsiness with action. If the result is a Kickboxer installment that got too big for its breeches, it's still better than House of Cards.
In a Senses of Cinema piece, Maximilian Le Cain wrote about Harmony Korine as (along with Haneke, Godard, and Kiarostami) "a necessary director, one whose absence would severely damage the world's cinematic ecology." I'm not so certain. Korine has been dormant for nine years, and the world's cinematic ecology has been just dandy. Mister Lonely ends his self-imposed exile since Julien Donkey-Boy in 1999, dragging the aging enfant terrible's flaccid routines back into the limelight. The narrative, bifurcated not unlike Pasolini's Pigsty, has on one hand the sad-pagliacci wanderings of a Mexican Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) who meets an ersatz Marilyn Monroe (Samantha Morton) and takes off to a community of celebrity mimics in the Scottish Highlands, and on the other a padre (Werner Herzog) and his gang of South American sky-diving nuns. Luna has a sort of Buster Keaton wounded charm (contrasting nicely with Denis Lavant's Little Tramp aggression), and the sporadic inventive image can be found amid the year's highest rate of botched improv routines (only Forgetting Sarah Marshall rivals it). The most affecting bit has a character muttering to himself, "How long... 34, 35... my life, nothing." Is that Korine talking? I never saw him as the new great hope of American cinema the way some people did, but I admit that Gummo, with its mix of tornadoes and bunny-naïfs and Roy Orbison's "Crying," had flashes of obsessive individuality. Korine reportedly lost himself in the years that followed that 1997 cherry bomb, though he says he's now "in a good place." I'm happy for him, though I suspect that he's the kind of artist who, like Picasso, needs vehemence -- without it, he just curdles into fanciful obscurantism. It's lonely out there for agitators.
Reviewed May 30, 2008.