As lovely, forlorn images go, Albert Lamorisse’s red balloon, drifting high over an ash-gray Paris, is tops. In that classic 1956 short, The Red Balloon, the orb finds a kindred spirit in Pascal, a picked-on boy (played by the director’s own son). Taiwan’s art-house hero Hou Hsiao-hsien, himself no stranger to urban disconnection, now orchestrates a postmodern riff on that setup, keeping the lonely boy, Simon (Iteanu), and adding a high-strung single mom (Binoche) and an attentive Chinese au pair, Song (Song), but pretty much kicking the balloon to the periphery. It’s a bit like doing Jaws without the shark, focusing instead on the dysfunction of Amity Island—but wouldn’t that be cool? Hou proves as much.
Flight of the Red Balloon fills its running time with leisurely gestures—not unpleasantly if you can recalibrate your internal clock to what feels like a breezy Parisian summer full of uncertainty. There are walks in the park. Simon plays pinball while Song watches. In one especially serene moment, Song calls out to Simon in his mother’s cozy apartment and, hearing nothing, goes upstairs to find his head on the pillow. This is the triumph of Hou’s style, here transplanted successfully to France for the first time, and also recently to Japan (Café Lumière). Hou can reduce the “construction” of filmmaking to its barest minimum, yet retain human interest. The subtext of Flight is so subtle as to be invisible: abandonment. Binoche’s divorced character, a frazzled vocalist for a puppet show, wears betrayal on her sleeve achingly. But all three protagonists feel a little lost. You’ll want to share their pain.
Cast and crew