Blue Berries and Red BalloonsApril 13, 2008
A remarkable red letter day for cinephiles, April 4th saw theatrical openings of new films by both Hou Hsiao Hsien and Wong Kar Wai, the two greatest Chinese-born filmmakers working today. There was a time (briefer for Wong than for Hou) when neither director’s films could find distribution in the States so this is cause enough for celebration. Coincidentally both films—both of which premiered at last year’s Cannes—are set abroad (one in France, the other in the States), star A-list actresses and center their stories on an introverted outsider who quietly observes the maelstrom of life around her. In My Blueberry Nights it’s heart-broken Nora Jones who leaves New York and travels cross country in search of solace. In Flight of the Red Balloon it’s Fang Song who goes to work as a nanny for harried single mom Juliette Binoche. Both films are more mood pieces than narratives. Both flirt with whimsy: a wandering red balloon—a hommage to Albert Lamorisse’s children’s classic of course—that bobs and weaves through the action; and a labored metaphor about blueberry pies. Both films are, in their own way, as light as air…or pastry crust.
As airy as it is, Flight of the Red Balloon is by far the stronger film, one of Hou’s best in years while My Blueberry Nights, dubbed a failure at Cannes, comes to us with its tail between its legs. Seen with low expectations, Blueberry is not unwatchable. Its screenplay (co-written with—WTF?—crime writer Lawrence Block) is terribly corny and adolescent and full of Hallmark sentiment, but the film looks gorgeous. WKW and his cinematographer, the great Darius Khondji (who has three films in theaters right now along with Funny Games and The Ruins!) fill every inch of the frame with a blur of color and light which is almost enough to distract us from the banality of its shopworn scenarios. Flight of the Red Balloon on the other hand is less spectacularly but more subtly beautiful. HHH and longtime DP Mark Lee Ping-bin work miracles in small spaces. Much of the action takes place in the cramped, cluttered apartment of Binoche’s puppeteer and her six year old son and one of the wonders of the film is the way Hou gradually redefines space. At first he films only one wall, with its central table at which everything seems to happen (reminiscent of so many other bustling family tables in earlier Hou films). But as the film progresses Hou reveals staircases, lofts and tiny chambers, like a dream in which you discover a room in your house you never knew was there.
But what really separates Hou’s film from Wong’s is that in Red Balloon, which overflows with incident and life, we feel as if we’re listening in on conversations, catching glimpses of people’s very real lives. (The scenes with the furniture movers and the blind piano tuner in particular are wonderful). In the far more hermetic Blueberry Nights we feel we’re being lectured about people’s lives that don’t ring true at all. And while Nora Jones is passable in her film debut, in Red Balloon Juliette Binoche (not the center of the film but definitely the star) gives the most surprisingly vibrant, mercurial performance of her career. That said, My Blueberry Nights still gets points for Cat Power, whose “The Greatest”—one of my favorite songs—plays at least three times in the film and who appears herself in a lovely, unexpected cameo.