Take careful note: This is a very special four-star rating. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon may be the most completely specialized film I’ve ever reviewed. To say that it’s hardly action-packed would be the understatement of this or any century. Put bluntly, there’s scarcely any action at all. There’s not even much plot. It could, in fact, be reasonably said that not much of anything happens in its entire 115-minute running time. If someone were to tell me that the movie was the most boring two hours they ever spent in a theater, I wouldn’t fault them for the assessment.
So why the four-star rating? The answer is simply that there’s much beauty and magic in Flight of the Red Balloon—if you’re willing to tap into its peculiarly languorous mind-set. If not, be prepared for two hours of tedium—and a French soundtrack with English subtitles. Since I’m completely unfamiliar with the work of Hou Hsiao-hsien, I have no idea if this languid, meditative film—his first film not made in Asia—is typical of his work or not. If it is, it’s not something I’d want a steady diet of.
Hou was hired to more or less remake Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 short film The Red Balloon. Of course, there’s an inherent problem in that as a concept: The original is 34 minutes long, and its slight plot barely supports that length. Instead of remaking the film, Hou offers viewers a meditation on it within a framework that is aware of the existence of the earlier film.
Taking the idea a step further, his film presents a directorial alter ego in the character of Song (newcomer Fang Song), a Chinese film student who harbors a desire to make a Red Balloon of her own. Furthering the sense of an alter ego is the fact that Song is a largely passive observer to the lives and dramas of Suzanne (Juliet Binoche) and her son, Simon (newcomer Simon Iteanu), even while working for the family as a nanny. There’s a sense that Song represents Hou’s own attempts at understanding the culture into which he’s ventured to make his variant of The Red Balloon. Dramatically speaking, this may be the most interesting aspect of the film. Certainly, it’s the key to understanding Hou’s approach to the material.
At bottom, this is a slice-of-life affair. We come into the lives of Suzanne and Simon without introduction and are asked to pick up what information we can from the events in their lives as they unfold. We learn that Suzanne has some kind of puppet theater, and while her life seems to be wrapped up in puppeteering (an interest inherited from her grandfather), we never see her engaged in any activity other than providing the voices of the puppets. In fact, we mostly see her struggle with the possibly self-inflicted dramas of her wildly disordered life.
Simon is an obviously doted-upon, but oddly isolated and lonely boy, who seems to have no friends his own age (that aspect is in keeping with the boy in the original film). When we first meet him, he’s trying to encourage the titular balloon to come down out of the trees and go home with him. This attempt at collecting a surrogate playmate doesn’t work and he dismisses the balloon as “stupid,” much as a rebuffed child might do with a real playmate. The balloon, however, follows him and—in an apparent expression of the filmmaker as God-like voyeur—keeps silent watch at different points in the film. (Both the balloon and filmmaker’s ability to observe from a variety of perspectives is addressed directly in a discussion of a painting in the film’s final scene.)
What happens? Not much in terms of action, but a good deal in terms of character development, and even more in terms of visuals that—somewhat like those of Wong Kar Wai—capture the beauty and magic of things that lie just beneath the surface of everyday life. There are moments of sheer magic in Hou’s use of reflections and one truly extraordinary shot of what appears to be the shadow of galloping horses. On the debit side, Hou has a tendency to lean heavily on a one-scene-one-shot approach. This is apparently to convey his own sense of being an impassive observer—and it works in that respect. But it’s also a limited and limiting cinematic technique in large doses, and that’s sometimes the case here.
Again, I cannot stress too strongly that this is a slow-moving film that will not be to everyone’s taste, but for those who aren’t put off by that, it has much to recommend it.