Flight of the Red Balloon

A pleasant Flight

Directed by Hsiao-hsien Hou. January 2008, France. Unrated: 115 min.

(Originally published in buzz magazine on 12-6-08)

Unlike directors of the latest Hollywood blockbusters, who excel in special effects, big explosions, and a simple, blatant message, China native Hsiao-hsien Hou prefers subtlety. In Flight of the Red Balloon, a French-language film released May 07 in the land of wine and cheese and April 08 in the States, Hou avoids hand-to-hand combat in favor of upset phone calls and one climactic confrontation.

The plot, while not quite secondary to the movie’s aesthetics, is minimal. The film centers on Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), a puppet show narrator, her son Simon (Simon Iteanu), a well-mannered 7-year-old who lives pinball and Song (Fang Song), an amateur filmmaker from Beijing hired on to be Simon’s nanny. And, if you count inanimate objects that tend to follow other characters around, consume a large proportion of camera time and seem to look into storefronts and at people who talk to them, a red balloon floating over urban France is a character as well. The balloon must be a symbol, right? I mean, the camera follows it when Simon begs it to come from just above a light post when Simon begs it to come down, to gray, cruddy rooftops, and back down to the window of the subway Simon hops in. But what does it mean? The balloon disappears from the movie for large amounts of time as we learn about Suzanne’s trouble with delinquent tenants in her building and Simon’s love for his sister, Louise, who lives in Brussels. It wanders, but it always returns, including a scene where a children take an art museum tour and speculate on the meaning of a painting with a child chasing a balloon and two adults (possibly) looking on. Does that mean our quest to understand the movie is childish? The meaning is unsure, but the long takes lingering on the balloon as it rises and falls indicate something greater than just coincidence.

Check it out quickly if you like art films. It leaves Boardman’s Art Theatre after Thursday for Man on Wire.