With the cost of air travel skyrocketing, Judge Ben Saylor is booking his next flight on a red balloon.
"Balloon, are you coming or not?"
There's a very deliberate reason why I chose to use the "small claims" format for my review of Flight of the Red Balloon. This film, the latest by filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien (Flowers of Shanghai, Three Times) is a floating, meandering work that defies conventional summarization, thus rendering a presentation of the "Facts of the Case" a rather pointless exercise. Balloon, inspired by Albert Lamorisse's 1956 short film, The Red Balloon, about a boy befriended by a large red balloon, quietly observes the lives of three people: Simon (Simon Iteanu), a young boy; his mother, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche, Chocolat), a lively, emotional puppeteer; and Song (Song Fang), a young woman hired by Suzanne to look after Simon while she prepares her next show. Once these three are put together, Hou simply allows their day-to-day lives to unfold before his camera, which seems to see nearly everything in these characters' worlds (including a red balloon that drifts by Suzanne and Simon's apartment now and again).
What Hou's camera doesn't record, however, is anything resembling a conventional movie plot. Forget the three-act structure; Flight of the Red Balloon just wants to watch these three characters regardless of whether they're on the phone, playing video games, or editing movies. Like a kinder, gentler Michael Haneke, Hou holds shots for several minutes at a stretch, discreetly panning and tilting the camera to follow the actors (and sometimes not following them, allowing conversations to go on with one character out of the frame). Hou also shoots through windows, as when the camera watches Simon play pinball as Song records it with her own camera. Much of the lighting looks natural (the film's d.p. was Mark Lee Ping Bing, who has worked with Wong Kar-wai, among other filmmakers), and light is frequently allowed to bleed, bathing scenes in a glow that conveys warmth and a further sense of intimacy between the audience and the characters.
In a film like Flight of the Red Balloon, something as mundane as moving a piano up a flight of stairs is a major scene in terms of action, and what is even more surprising is that after the movers have successfully transported the instrument, they stick around and chat with Suzanne for several minutes about their job. At another point in the film, Song leads a blind piano tuner to the apartment, and while he works, Simon plays video games and talks on the phone, and eventually Suzanne enters the mix as well. But rather than being dull, the moments Hou chooses to linger on are always the right ones: Simon calling to the red balloon to follow him, Suzanne giving away a prized postcard, Suzanne rehearsing her puppet show.
While this might be boring for some, for the patient viewer, these moments offer bountiful riches, not the least of which is the great acting contained within them. As Suzanne, Binoche has by far has the most prominent and dynamic character to play, and she gives a mesmerizing performance. Alternately joyful, harried and sad, Binoche's energy is what powers Flight of the Red Balloon forward. While Iteanu and Song are both fine in much more subdued performances, it is Binoche who provides the film's spirit.
After watching Flight of the Red Balloon, I still find myself pondering the connections between Lamorisse's The Red Balloon and Hou's work. In a literal sense, the balloon is a much more low-key presence in Hou's film, and Suzanne, not Simon, comes the closest to what the movie has for a protagonist. Stylistically, the films aren't really that similar either; if I remember right, Lamorisse's color palette was largely drab (presumably to provide sharper contrast for the balloon), whereas Hou prefers warm colors. Some conversation from classmates of Simon's who are looking at a piece of art on a school trip helps explain the homage to a degree. And in a very broad sense, both films are simple and warmhearted. I suppose if nothing else, the connection affords Hou the opportunity to include some memorable shots of the balloon soaring over the skies of Paris. (The film offers the viewer many lovely looks at the City of Lights.)
Genius Products' DVD of Flight of the Red Balloon offers a very solid DVD transfer that nicely renders the film's bright, naturalistic cinematography. The Dolby 5.1 mix won't tax your speakers, as music is used sparingly in the film, but dialogue always comes through clearly. There are no special features to speak of, although previews play before the disc's menu. It would have been nice to hear from the filmmakers or at least the actors; much of what I've read about the film indicates that improvisation was involved, and I'd have loved to hear about Hou's process and how the actors, some of them appearing on film for the first time (Iteanu and Song), handled this method of working.
Flight of the Red Balloon is not for anyone without any tolerance or interest in foreign films or deliberately paced films in general. Similarly, those looking for a conventional plot complete with exposition, climax, and resolution will be disappointed. But if you open your mind to the film's low-key charms and poignant moments, I think you'll very much enjoy Flight of the Red Balloon.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
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