In celebration of its 20th anniversary, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris has commissioned four notable directors to create a series of commemorative films. One of them is Olivier Assayas with his Summer Hours (l’Heure d’été) which I have reviewed. Another is the highly acclaimed Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien. Flight of the Red Balloon is a unique piece of film art gently crafted by Hou in homage to Albert Lamorisee’s Oscar winning short Le Ballon Rouge (1956). Hou has long been garnering awards in international film festivals throughout Europe and Asia since the 1980’s, albeit relatively unknown in North America. Flight of the Red Balloon is his first French language film.
The little boy in this 2007 rendition is Simon (Simon Iteanu), a child growing up in the hustle and bustle of Paris. With an absentee father somewhere in Montreal pursuing his writing, and a frantically busy mother Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), Simon is alone in an adult world. Overloaded with her work as a voice-over artist in a puppet production plus other personal matters, Suzanne hires Song (Fang Song), a film student from Beijing, to look after Simon for her.
Suzanne is the embodiment of urban frenzy. As a single mother, she has to shuttle between home and work, deal with the eviction of a bad tenant in her lower apartment, confront her non-committal husband on the phone to Montreal, and connect with her daughter in Brussel, all in a day’s work. Simon is most perplexed. “Why are you so busy, Mama?”, he asks.
Song, on the other hand, offers the tranquility that is needed to balance life in the midst of chaos. As a film student, she uses her hand-held camera to record Simon’s activities, and by her quiet demeanor and calm observing, she reflects pleasure in the mundane, everyday trivialities called life. This is reality show without sensationalism. Hou has ingeniously conveyed his perspective of realism with artistic overtone. No doubt, there is a lack of plot, suspense, or climax, but there is character contrasts, cinematic offerings in sights and sounds, and realistic, natural performance. Juliette Binoche has once again assured me why she is one of my favorite actresses. And no, you are not watching paint dry, you are watching life unplugged.
The red balloon forms the focal point of Hou’s signature long take. The almost God-like omnipresence hovering over buildings in the Paris skyline is a joyful symbol of childhood. Its silent drifting is as elusive as the fleeting memories of happiness. Even little Simon achingly remembers the pleasant days he had shared with his much older sister, who is now living in Brussel. We are all trying to catch and hold on to fond memories and meaningful relationships. Yet as the busyness of urban living numb our senses, we ignore and shove away what we think is a hindrance to our time, just like the people rushing out of the subway station, shoving away the red balloon. Only a child would try to catch and befriend it.
Complementing the cinematic artistry is the equally mesmerizing piano music, meditative, serene and restoring, setting the mood and the preamble of the film. Other musical numbers are equally soulful. Click here for the official IFC site where you can have a taste of the sights and sounds of the film.
I particularly enjoy the ending. As Simon goes on a school trip to the art gallery of the Musée d’Orsay, the children gather on the floor to talk about Félix Vallotton’s 1899 painting Le Ballon, he leans back, slightly removes himself from his school mates, and lays on his back. As he looks up to the glass canopy of the museum ceiling, he sees it again, the red balloon, watching over him, removed yet engaged, far away, yet ever so near.
~ ~ ~ Ripples