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If a study of steroid use doesn't sound like the recipe for a compelling film, you haven't seen Bigger, Stronger, Faster. Why would Hou Hsiao-hsien go off to France and make a Juliette Binoche movie?

Bigger, Stronger, Faster; Flight of the Red Balloon 

Americans look to steroids; A Taiwanese artist looks to France

click to enlarge Juliette Binoche and Song Fang in Flight of the Red Balloon - PHOTO BY TSAI CHENG-TAI/ IFC FILMS
  • Photo by Tsai Cheng-tai/ IFC Films
  • Juliette Binoche and Song Fang in Flight of the Red Balloon

Watching audiences line up for FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON in front of two Manhattan art houses earlier this year, I had no doubt that the French movie's impressive draw was owed to the preponderance of glowing reviews it had just received, especially Manohla Dargis' appreciation in the New York Times.

Still, I wondered, which name was most responsible for attracting people to the theaters: Was it Juliette Binoche, the film's star, or Hou Hsiao-hsien, its director?

I would bet on Binoche. After working with directors as diverse as Krzystof Kieslowski, Andre Téchiné, Anthony Minghella and Michael Haneke, the bilingual 44-year-old actress can easily be called France's leading international screen star of her generation, as well as a very appealing and accomplished performer.

Hou, on the other hand, is still a relative unknown even to many dedicated American cinephiles. Though the Taiwanese director has been at work since the early 1980s, and has been an acclaimed international auteur for well over a decade, a variety of business complications kept his films out of our art houses until, just last year, his meditative tripartite drama Three Times received a modest U.S. release.

It's possible, however, that there's a significant discrepancy between reviewers and filmgoers when it comes to Hou. Many critics, after all, have been following his fascinating and challenging work for years at international film festivals, where he is a celebrated artist with few equals in terms of lionization. Indeed, while Hou's name remains little known to the U.S. public, among critics his renown has reached the point where one senses that he receives raves that are more automatic than considered, even if they reflect an understandable desire to educate audiences about an important filmmaker.

That kind of knee-jerk acclaim, I'm afraid, explains the widely sympathetic, sometimes gushing reviews that Flight of the Red Balloon has received. Hou is a genius, it is said; therefore every film of his is a work of art. In this case, though I'm a longtime admirer and defender of the director, I must beg to differ. Hou's latest strikes me as a trifle, more perplexing than interesting, with inherent problems that are bound up with the fact that it's the first movie he has made outside of Asia.

In the annals of the "foreign film," it has long been axiomatic that the great auteurs are closely tied to the national cultures from which they emerge. Think of Fellini in Italy, Bergman in Sweden, Kurosawa in Japan, Fassbinder in Germany, and so on: In every case it is hard to imagine the artist, or his work, apart from the cultural matrix. Occasional talents like Hitchcock and Polanski who launch themselves toward transnational success are the exceptions; the rule is that of the rooted auteur, and Hou is a prime example.

His great subject has been Taiwanese identity, with all the roiling and variegated forces that have contributed to its unfolding in the last century. From personal early works such as A Time to Live and a Time to Die, through the sweeping historical examinations of City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster and such bittersweet evocations of contemporary Taipei as Daughter of the Nile, Hou has not only ingeniously probed what it means to be Taiwanese, he has also evolved a spare, self-consciously Chinese cinematic language that at once conveys and comprises his meaning. Even his few dramas set outside Taiwan—mainland China in Flowers of Shanghai, Japan in the recent Café Lumiere—deal with cultures that remain intertwined with Taiwan's.

So why would he go off to France and make a Juliette Binoche movie? There are two primary reasons, I think, and neither is particularly salutary.

First, Hou's native cinematic context has largely vanished. When he started making films a quarter-century ago, there was a Taiwanese cinema worthy of the name. But, as in so many other parts of the world, the incursion of Hollywood decimated a fragile industry with relentless thoroughness. The result: In recent years, Hou and his colleagues Edward Yang (who died last year) and Tsai Ming-liang have been turning out "Taiwanese" art films that are largely made with foreign money and aimed at foreign audiences.

Second, the epicenters of Hou worship have long been the cinemas of Paris and the salons of the Cannes Film Festival, and when the French acclaim an artist, they tend to claim him, too. No doubt there was something both proprietary and self-flattering in the French assumption that the place that was so good for the reception of Hou's art would be just as good for its creation. In any case, they offered, and he accepted.

Flight of the Red Balloon is by no means a bad film in the sense of a sellout, an effort on Hou's part to ape foreign formulas. On the contrary, its interest in the quirky surfaces of human behavior and visual perception are very much his own. At the same time, though, the milieu he treats and some of his own mannerisms combine to create the impression that, in many ways, Flight is a not untypical French art film that could have been made by any number of native directors.

Which is to say, in part, that it is longer on naturalistic detail than compelling narrative. Binoche plays Suzanne, a puppeteer who lives a scattered life that's divided between her work and care for her young son, a floppy-haired tyke named Simon (Simon Iteanu). To help her with the boy and her ramshackle apartment, Suzanne hires Song (Song Fang), a quiet film student from Beijing.

Song's presence is the film's only overt connection to Hou's native culture, and thus tangentially evokes the theme of globalization. But Hou doesn't do much to explore or develop this theme or others that flit through the film, such as the varied uses and significances of means of expression such as Suzanne's puppet-theater storytelling, Song's video-making, or the various films and paintings that Flight references.

Mostly, the film offers a seriocomic slice-of-life look at Suzanne's frazzled, up-and-down existence, including not only the important presences of Simon and Song but also the significant absences of her daughter and estranged lover, both of whom are abroad. There are some memorable moments in this impressionistic chronicle, such as the droll passage where Song fields a call from an obnoxious neighbor of Suzanne's who wants to use her kitchen for a culinary project. Besides limning the delicate negotiations such a request entails, this scene launches a minor subplot that ends up telling us a lot about Suzanne (and perhaps about Hou's view of certain French obsessions, too).

Flight is made up of such off-handed plot strands and glancing bit of both comedy and drama. Viewers who favor narrative momentum or cultural purpose may well find it tedious. But I will hand Hou one thing. When his Hong Kong cohort Wong Kar-wai recently undertook a similar leap to the West by making Blueberry Nights in the U.S., he made the mistake of centering his film on a first-time actress, Norah Jones. Hou at least had the good sense to anchor his project on a very experienced and skilled performer.

Ironically, while Flight may be regarded as finally a rather pointless Hou Hsiao-hsien film, it can also be called a striking Juliette Binoche film. We have not seen a character like Suzanne in the actress' repertoire before, and Binoche seems to alter her physical being—away from sleek glamour, toward frumpy disarray—in creating a vivid, substantive portrait of a single mother trying to manage her life's vagaries. Without her strong work, many of the film's scenes would simply crumble like dried flowers. With it, Flight skitters along lyrically, and occasionally soars.

The film's title, and the red balloon that recurrently glides through its frames, is a homage to Albert Lamorisse's 1956 short The Red Balloon, a love letter to Paris in which a magically self-determined balloon follows a boy through the city.

Which brings us to the most important part of the review you're reading. Lamorisse's Red Balloon and its companion piece White Mane, about a boy who finds a wild stallion on France's Mediterranean coast, are two of the most wonderful, transcendent featurettes in the history of cinema, and are suitable for viewers from 5 years old and up. Both have recently been issued on DVD. If you've never seen them, do yourself a favor and add them to your Netflix queue forthwith.

Flight of the Red Balloon opens Friday in select theaters.


click to enlarge Chris Bell, director of Bigger, Stronger, Faster, in before and after photos taken on the same day and digitally manipulated - PHOTO COURTESY OF MAGNOLIA PICTURES

Although Christopher Bell's engrossing documentary BIGGER, STRONGER, FASTER never references Stay Hungry, Bob Rafelson's 1976 comedy gave America one of its first glimpses of the world of competitive bodybuilding and of a Mr. Universe who would soon be a cinema superstar. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the future Governator, looms large in Bell's film as an icon and unapologetic user of anabolic steroids.

If a study of steroid use doesn't sound like the recipe for a compelling film, you haven't seen Bigger, Stronger, Faster. Bell's movie emerges as one of the year's best docs largely because it converts its prosaic subject into a springboard for a wide-ranging, highly entertaining exploration of crucial areas of American character and culture.

Like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, though not quite so comically, the blocky, backward-baseball-cap-wearing Bell puts himself at the center of his chronicle, telling how his and his brothers' early-'80s emulation of Hulk Hogan propelled them from being flabby kids into bodybuilders and athletes with dreams of professional glory. For Bell's siblings, steroid use followed naturally.

Briskly edited and skillfully structured, Bell's film surveys the evidence of America's obsession with body image—from those old Charles Atlas ads, through increasingly pumped GI Joe dolls, to the fakery involved in muscle-mag photos—and weighs the emotional arguments, pro and con, over steroid use.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the film is Bell's obvious ambivalence. On one hand, he seems to agree with many athletes that 'roids aren't that harmful and not too different from other means of performance enhancement (such as Tiger Woods' Lasik eye surgery). On the other hand, Bell clings to the ideal of sports as an arena that should reflect natural gifts and hard work alone.

His failure to reconcile these views might be counted a flaw in some films. In this confident debut, though, Bell convinces us that it's a dilemma with roots buried deep in the American soul.

Bigger, Stronger, Faster opens Friday in select theaters.

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