Flight of the Red Balloon

Flight of the Red Balloon aka Le voyage du ballon rouge (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2007)

A little boy and his baby-sitter inhabit the same imaginary world: through their adventures they are followed by a strange red balloon.

Taiwan director Hou Hsiao-hsien was asked to pay homage to Albert Lamorisse’s short film Le ballon rouge. Hsiao-hsien or HHH, was as many international directors much appreciated in France and has a wide legion of followers in this part of the world. With the near-perfect Juliette Binoche as the single mom of little Simon (Simon Iteanu) she employs a Taiwanese baby-sitter (Fang Song) that shares the link of the red balloon that follows them.

Many years ago I saw Lamorisse’s short and read what François Truffaut had to say about it; a virulent critic of the director’s use of human feelings on a simple toy has a balloon. Le ballon rouge is a cute film that charmed many of its viewers. However, HHH managed to make a superior film with a brilliant use of music, and minimalist mise-en-scène.

He puts his camera in their apartment and only pans to follow his characters without moving it that much. The use of many improvisations make the scenes feel like they are genuine slices of the lives of the characters. Many long takes are immersing the viewer in the action.
Obviously, this is not a mainstream film that has plenty of action and a clear plot line. But, for the viewer who is patient and receptive this is a rewarding film. Playing with the contrast of the adulthood obligations, the imagination of the childhood and the link between the two that is Suzanne’s puppetry. One of the greatest scene is the moment when Suzanne gives a performance with Simon on her side. They seem to form a complete image of the mix of many things that happened in their lives and the whole thing is well acted with a patient restraint that Binoche handled with great mastery. Those moments are something that only a gifted filmmaker can create and shot as sublime as HHH did. This simple moment is the culmination of the entire plot and on the surface may seem light and tender but it grasps so much that there is no need for narrative or dialogues to demonstrate its pertinence.

Flight of the Red Balloon is important for me because it represents my first encounter with a film by Hou Hsiao-hsien but also because it opens my HHH February festival. Knowing that it might not be HHH’s greatest film is also quite something because it opens a nice list of blind spot films and a window on The Assassin (2015), the latest film by HHH. Flight of the Red Balloon is definitely a near masterpiece from the Taiwanese filmmaker.

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