#033: Flight Of The Red Balloon

The latest work of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien is a tribute to Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 short film ‘Le Ballon Rouge’ (’The Red Balloon’).

‘Flight Of The Red Balloon’ follows the director’s recent trend of making films abroad; his 2003 film ‘Café Lumière’ was a close documentation of Tokyo life, and his latest offers a similarly poetic perspective on Paris.

An examination of the stresses of modern living, Juliette Binoche (who you may know from ‘Chocolat’ or ‘The English Patient’) plays the part of busy puppeteer mother Suzanne, who is constantly trying to look after her young son Simon whilst coping with her puppeteer job and dealing with their financial problems. The new nanny Fang Song is a student film-maker and enters into the family’s world to look after Simon but becomes a fly-on-the-wall for the unravelling crises, documenting it all with her camcorder.

The narrative stays close to the experiences of the family. We follow Simon through each day, as does nanny Song and the eponymous red balloon. The mother Suzanne is a frantic and deep character and despite son Simon acting as a lead, Suzanne is the focus, dominating each scene with emotion and conviction.

The film deals with all the aspects of the family’s everyday life with a slow pace typical of Hsiao-hsien’s work but as ever his delicate treatment of the subject makes the experience joyous. Beautiful cinematography makes frequent use of reflections and blurry through-window shots to create an atmosphere of being a hidden onlooker in the characters’ lives.

The film seems to be full of parallels between the viewer and the situation on-screen.
The viewer is introduced to Paris through the intimate portrayal of the characters’ lives and becomes as much a part of the film as the red balloon, which watches over the action and looks in the windows but is never noticed.
Simon acts as a focus for the other characters but plays an onlooker himself to his mother’s complicated problems, while Song’s character acts as an internal critic for the film as she herself is making a film based on ‘Le Ballon Rouge’.

‘Flight Of The Red Balloon’ is a clever and detailed film and feels very French yet contains strong Chinese elements (which is perhaps strange for a Taiwanese director). An exchange of cultures is described in the film; Song is fascinated by the Chinese red of the French balloon as Suzanne admires the puppetry work of her Chinese contemporaries. Song mentions studying ‘Le Ballon Rouge’ in Beijing, and perhaps with ‘Flight Of The Red Balloon’ Hsiao-hsien is trying to suggest how far the original film has travelled in it’s influence, such that his film is as much a description of the original as it is of Paris.

A song written by French singer Camille for the end of the film suggests the alcoholic hallucinatory state that allowed such a vision to be created. The film’s slow pace may mean that it isn’t for everyone, however Juliette Binoche’s performance is ultimately gripping and the cleverness of Hsiao-hsien’s composition and intimacy of depiction is wonderful.

Catch it.

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