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Flight of the Red Balloon

Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien

Written by Hou Hsiao-hsien and François Margolin

Starring: Juliette Binoche, Simon Iteanu, and Fang Song

Rated PG

Opens Friday, April 18 in Limited Release

In Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon, the balloon in question seems to drift into every corner of a melancholy-tinged Paris; it drags through a quiet skyline and is glazed onto the side of a building, it sits within oil paintings and computer screens. Most prominently, the balloon occupies an unspoken space in a small network of Parisian lives: it sparks their perception and weighs on their memory.

But Hou’s film is largely concerned with looking at life through a lens attuned to the small aesthetic wonders of the world, the abstract mess of color and sound that usually captivates children. Consequently, the film’s gaze usually springs from that of a little boy, Simon (Simon Iteanu), and expands to the adults that are a part of his life. While the film traces these interweaving lives, the balloon repeatedly — insistently — drifts in and out of scenes, vibrantly red and full of life.

The action taking place in the forefront of the film is slightly more defined than the balloon’s vague, drifting path (but only slightly). It focuses primarily on Simon, his mother Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), and his baby-sitter Song (Fang Song). Flight offers fragments of their lives, fluidly and beautifully linked to give us an understanding of its characters, but ones that don’t build to any conventional narrative structure. Hou’s film is truly, and unabashedly, about nothing more than the way a child presses into his own reflection in a car window, or the way a mother looks at her child.

One of the reasons Flight doesn’t need to rely on the usual film pyrotechnics is Suzanne, an explosive and unforgettable character in her own right. The highest praise I can offer Binoche’s performance is that I have rarely seen a female character so vibrant and engaging outside of an Almodóvar film. In the mold of Penelope Cruz’s character in Volver, Suzanne is all color and choler; she both smiles and scowls with a full-bodied vitality, and sheds tears without a bit of melodrama. The only fitting outlet for her volatile expressiveness is in her performances as a puppetmaster (an affectionate reference to Hou’s previous film, The Puppetmaster). Suzanne roots herself deeply in this Chinese art form, and channels both her melancholy and delight into tales of men who try to boil the sea to find their lost lovers.

The film sometimes drifts into unexplained memories of Simon with his sister, Louise (Louise Margolin), but largely focuses on Song, Simon, and Suzanne. The film’s heart seems to hide somewhere in the scenes when Song and Simon are walking through the streets of Paris. Song is a film student from China and, referencing the 1956 film The Red Balloon (which also seems to be this film’s inspiration), she uses her hand-held camera to make films that clearly echo Hou’s own conscience as a director (they are about a red balloon).

Like almost every other bit of Flight of the Red Balloon, Song demonstrates a kind of subdued vigor; she reveals everything about herself in quiet gestures. We are shown bits of her films, and they provide a deeper dialogue about Song’s character than anything else we could hope for. Like the balloon framed in Song’s handicam, bobbing quietly, Hou’s film leaves us with abstract, but deeply enduring emotion.