Flight of the Red Balloon (2007)

In honour of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien winning the Best Director award last Sunday at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, I’m re-posting a review I wrote a few years back on Hou’s Flight of the Red Balloon (2007).

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flight-of-the-red-balloon

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-and-simon

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.

felix-vallotton-le-ballon-1899I 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, that omnipresence, watching over him, removed yet engaged, far away, yet ever so near.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Other Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

Conversation with Juliette Binoche

Tuffing it out at TIFF14

Summer Hours (l’Heure d’été) by Olivier Assayas

Yasujiro Ozu and the Art of Aloneness

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Slow Blogging and the Long Take

Recently, I’ve been mulling over the notion of slow blogging, a movement that is gradually gaining attention. I first read about it in a blog I frequent.  In her post entitled “Slow, Stefanie has drawn out the essence of what slow blogging is. It’s all about thinking through, reading and studying in depth, chewing and digesting, and finally putting something meaningful down in words. I don’t know who initiated the idea. It may have sprouted up from various bloggers, those who care about the quality of their writing, and the effects of their posts. I urge my readers to visit the Oxford University Press blog post on the subject, and the Slow Blog Manifesto.

Yes, a Slow Blog Manifesto, written by Todd Sieling dated back to September, 2006. But for some uncanny reasons, just as I was working on my draft of this very post, after I’ve linked the SBM to my draft, it has now been taken off the WWW.  Hope this is not an omen of things to come.  Fortunately, before its disappearance, I had the chance to read and mull over his words:

“Slow Blogging is a rejection of immediacy.  It is an affirmation that not all things worth reading are written quickly.”

(It’s back!  Todd Sieling has just re-posted his SBM. He has created a whole new site just for this.  Click here to go there.  You may want to read his comment at the end of this post. I’m just going to leave the following paragraph as is.)

But then, all is not lost.  Barbara Ganley’s BGBLOGGING is still standing.  Ganley had taught writing at Middlebury College in Vermont for some years until quiting her academic job in recent months and ventured into uncharted personal exploration.  She is an advocate of slow blogging, and related the idea to the term meditative blogging, way back in November 2006.  Here’s the link to that post.

After more than two years, the notion has finally reached Arti of Ripple Effects. As my blog name suggests, I thrive on hindsights and delayed resonance. I may not have immediate response to all that I come across, but for those ideas I find stimulating, I would delve into and mull over, research and read about them, sometimes for a long while, before I dare to put thoughts into words. I’m glad I have finally found a name for the kind of writing and thinking with which I feel most comfortable all along.

leaves-on-pavement-webpage2

And that is why I find a recent article in the November issue of ‘The Atlantic’ so disconcerting.  In his article entitled “Why I Blog”, Andrew Sullivan , the prominent political commentator and blogger, describes blogging as postmodern writing that thrives on its immediacy. By nature it is rash and temporal.

“It is the spontaneous expression of instant thought. As a blogger, you have to express yourself now, while your emotions roil, while your temper flares, while your humor lasts.”

What Sullivan is pronouncing is that you may have an instant platform accessible by all in the blogosphere, and with links authenticating your sources, but what you write is as ephemeral as your breath, as unreliable as your mood, and as momentary as your fleeting thoughts. Time is of the essence in the blogging world.

I can understand such a perspective may apply to political and news blogs, where bloggers’ views and comments are almost on a par with professional journalists, or where bloggers are journalists, such as Sullivan himself.

But I’d just like to remind Sullivan that there are also those of us for whom blogging is not about beating to the punch, or channeling rants and angsts, or climbing to a higher ranking and authority. What we write may seem like ramblings at times, but they are thoughts that have gone through regurgitation, pondering, and conscious self-censure. For the writing I read in some of the blogs I visit, their quality is not undermined by the self-publishing nature of blog writing.  Their message is no less important, their style no less eloquent, their impact no less powerful than many conventionally published materials.

pilings-in-astoria-slow-blogging

Around the same time, I came across the post on the long take in Brett McCracken’s blog The Search. Do click on the link there to read the whole essay when you are there.  The long take is a technique where a camera follows its subject for an extended period of time without cutting, capturing life in real time. Viewers looking for instant gratification and fast actions would often find the long take boring, incongruent to the normal pacing of a normal movie. But as blog writer and movie critic Brett McCracken reflects, the long take leads us to confront life in a real sense, in real time:

I go to movies to recapture time—that achingly pervasive burden that keeps us so unceasingly busy in our normal lives. In the movies, time is “free.” We need not worry about our own time; all that is required of us is that we cede our imagination to the screen, where time is footloose and fancy free, dancing to and fro in flashback, flashforward, slow-mo, still, etc.

voyage-du-ballon-rougeA vivid example is Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon which I reviewed in my last post.  Who would want to sit in a theatre to watch a balloon slowly drifting above the urbanscape, other than those who enjoy the grace of unhurried moments, those who consciously seek for poetics in the mundane, and those who take time to ponder the meaning conveyed by the filmmaker.

Slow blogging and the long take, two powerful ways to glean the indelible essence of life.

*****

Flight of the Red Balloon (2007, France, DVD)

flight-of-the-red-balloon

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-and-simon

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.

felix-vallotton-le-ballon-1899I 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