2007 // France - Taiwan // Hou Hsiao-Hsien // June 2, 2008 // Theatrical Print
B - Flight of the Red Balloon is not a mystery, but it is mysterious. It is the sort of film that is difficult to dislike: commandingly acted, studded with bittersweet morsels of authentic human drama, and possessing a quiet self-assurance about its virtues. In offering a brief glimpse into the lives of a Parisian mother and son, Flight eschews Big Ideas for a convincing portrait, and along the way it evokes a powerful aura of tenderness and melancholy. Unfortunately, there is an airiness to its method that is dissatisfying, even distracting at times. Flight is not a film with a message. It seems to have no aim other than to move us, a guiltless bit of voyeurism that will echo our own recollections of childhood (or parenthood). It takes some time to adjust to the film's delicate ambitions; "Where is this going?" I asked myself more than once, and not out of excitement. Flight demands patience, but it rewards the viewer with a wealth of mood and remembrance, delivered in a handsome Gallic wrapping.
The film opens on young Simon (Simon Iteanu) on the bustling streets of Paris, calling out insistently to a red balloon that floats above him. The boy eventually loses interest and ambles on, but the balloon continues to drift through the story, as both a literal presence (often softly bumping outside a window) or as an icon invoked by the characters. Simon's mother, Suzanne—a blond, bedraggled, enticing-as-ever Juliette Binoche—has hired a new nanny, Song (Fang Song). A Chinese film student with a soft demeanor and an even softer voice, Song always seems to have a digital camcorder in hand. She is quiet, bright, wary, warm, and eager-to-please. She seems made for Suzanne and Simon.
Suzanne works in traditional puppet theater, the sort of career (and passion) that seems perfectly ordinary in the beating heart of Paris. There are glimpses of her at rehearsal, where she supplies the voice acting for the production. She squeals and bellows her way through a Chinese fairy tale with gusto, while Simon looks on, his eyes full of delight and hunger as they dart between the puppets and his mother. Simon is a sensitive, strong child with a talent for math and pinball. He never has a cross word for anyone. Song quickly sees what Suzanne knows: that Simon is a good soul, and that to treat him with affection is as natural as breathing.
Strictly speaking, Flight of the Red Balloon has only the thinnest plot. Mostly, ordinary things happen. The story elements are related in a way that mimics the nebulous quality of real life, where burdens and pleasures rub shoulders. Song films Simon with her camcorder, mentioning her interest in Albert Lamorisse's 1956 short film, The Red Balloon. Simon has a piano lesson in the apartment downstairs. Suzanne, who owns the building with her ex-husband, is incensed with the neighbors. They haven't paid any rent in a year, and she talks to a lawyer about how to evict them. Song gradually becomes an essential part of the household. She helps Suzanne transfer her family's 8mm tapes to video, and translates when Suzanne hosts an esteemed Chinese puppet master. There are meals and harried phone conversations. Outside, the red balloon floats on.
Flight of the Red Balloon drifts along at is own pace. It hovers over its scenes, absorbing everything that is said and unsaid. The film then flies ahead, time passing in skips and leaps. Flight is mostly chronological, with the occasional flashback sighting of Simon's older sister Louise, now away at school in Brussels. Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien captures many scenes in long, unbroken shots, the frame edging back and forth to follow movement and conversation. There is an appealing understatement to these ambitious scenes. The challenge inherent in them only becomes apparent later, a sort of quiet complement to Children of Men's hold-your-breath set pieces. (Is it coincidence that a poster for Alfonso Cuarón's science fiction thriller has a cameo here?) In Flight, these long takes lend the film a naturalism that sharpens its emotional power.
Suzanne, like the film, is always in motion, even if it is only to pace anxiously, her straw-colored hair perpetually tousled. She bounces from one responsibility to the next. "Why are you always so busy, Mama?," asks Simon. "Because I have many things to do," is the reply, as if this were the most obvious thing in the world. Flight is no melodrama about parental neglect or broken homes. Simon does not seem unhappy (for now) despite the long gulfs of inattention, and Suzanne's love for her boy is never in doubt. Song senses the strength in their relationship, and seems content to stand outside of it, feeling its warmth as a friend to both mother and son.
What is Hou doing here, exactly? Flight seems to be striving singularly for a naturalistic depiction of a family. There is drama, certainly, in Suzanne's emerging struggle with the tenants, a conflict connected to the absent husband and daughter. However, Hou isn't especially committed to these aspects of the story. The events that unfold in Flight primarily serve to highlight, to varying degrees, the essence of the relationship between mother and son. It's an appealing approach to the material, and one that is executed with grace. Still, there is a puffy remoteness in the film's stance towards its own story. It is so self-consciously not about the deadbeat tenants or the puppet show or the piano movers that it keeps the viewer at a distance. Flight also suffers from Hou's occasional flirtations with bloated, arty indulgence. (Hey, another sixty second tracking shot of a red balloon floating through Paris!)
It's a testament to the marvelous performances from Binoche and Iteanu, then, that Flight still strikes deeply resonant chords of human sentiment. Binoche is riveting, recalling how she shaped and then dominated the best scenes in Caché. She has the rare sort of screen presence that allows her to convey seemingly contradictory qualities: sexy and haggard, waspish and vulnerable, adoring and aloof. Iteanu is equally amazing, delivering the most convincing child performance of the year. He speaks, walks, and fidgets as a child his age would naturally, and conveys the exact way that young boys brood and gawk. Not to be overlooked is Fang, who is crisply aware of her character's position as both a friend and The Help. Watch her carefully while Suzanne confers with a lawyer or bickers on the telephone; Fang is passive, yet clearly always listening, sometimes with carefully concealed anxiety.
Almost all the scenes in Flight of the Red Balloon include Simon in some way. Although he is not always at the center of the action, he is usually present, even if only as a quiet observer. For me, the film's curious style snaps into sharper focus if it is approached as a scrapbook of Simon's memories, vignettes remembered from this specific time when his mother wrestled with a crisis and a new friend entered their lives. Hou hints as much, particularly in the select moments where Simon is absent. In one moving scene, Suzanne reminisces about a cherished Chinese postcard, and how it always summons memories of her college days. And yet she gives the postcard as a token of gratitude to the old puppet master. Later, she shows Simon one of the restored, silent 8 mm movies featuring footage of her grandfather, also a puppeteer. What are they saying, asks Simon? Suzanne doesn't know, so she makes up her own words. The words don't really matter. The feeling of that relationship—the beauty of it, the pain of its loss, the value of remembering it—doesn't need to be fabricated.