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NYFF: Flight of the Red Balloon

October 9th, 2007 (07:54 pm)

If you're of a certain age, you've probably seen Albert Lamorisse's 1956 movie The Red Balloon, likely between the ages of 7 and 12. It's a bit of a mystery why a story of a lonely little boy named Pascal and the red balloon that follows him around Paris would become a favorite of school planners – and why it's left an impression on those kids, so many years later – but the movie's definitely snuck its way into the cultural consciousness. There have been a few semi-tributes to the film, maybe the most memorable being Jafar Panahi's The White Balloon (1995), about a little girl's adventures out of the house one day. A fun movie, although made in a different spirit from the original French film.

Flight of the Red Balloon (Le Voyage du ballon rouge) is another in that vein. Directed by the redoubtable Hou Hsiao-hsien, it's also about a lonely Parisian boy. Simon's parents are divorced and his father out of the country (writing a novel in Montréal); his mother Suzanne, an apparently successful performer and authority on puppetry, is often away performing, rehearsing, holding lectures and seminars – the implication that she's spending "quality" rather than "quantity" time with Simon. He has a piano teacher who dearly loves him,and Suzanne has hired a nanny to look after Simon. His older half sister is the focus of many of his thoughts, but she lives in Brussels and isn't around until the summer (and it's definitely not summer). So there aren't really any children in Simon's world; he goes through his days among adults.

Despite her schedule, Simon's mother definitely wants to do right by him, and so Song Fang has been brought in as "child-minder". She's a university film student from Beijing, and as such, she's alone much like Simon. She takes him for walks after school, running errands and playing pinball, during which he becomes the focus of a film she's shooting on her video camera; as time passes we find out it's her homage to The Red Balloon and Simon her Pascal. Those glimpses of the red balloon that drift across this screen could be Simon's imagination, or clips from her movie, or his childlike interpretation of her movie. All are equally remote to everyone: Simon, who can't get the balloon to actually come to him, the adults, who don't really see it, and the audience, which never really finds out which explanation is correct.

The movie itself, almost as quiet as the original, is described as Hou's description of life in modern Paris. The action mostly (and almost unconsciously) follows Simon, mostly during his time with Song Fang, but there is information about all the main characters. Song Fang can communicate in French and get around, but she's not a native speaker - not even a westerner - and has to get clarification on words and customs. Suzanne tries to provide for Simon as well as she can, but she's a single mother with a demanding schedule; a subtenant – a soon-to-be former friend - who hasn't paid rent in years but can make himself at home in her kitchen; a daughter (Simon's half-sister) who she'd like back in her life but who's establishing herself far away with other relatives; and an ex-lover (Simon's father) in Montreal and drifting away. It's not just Simon who's alone.

The cinematography adds to that sense of aloneness. There's all the traffic of a world city, the crowds and cars and buses and subways, but not many connections are being made. The balloon floats across the rooftops of Paris, but up there there's no sign of life beyond a flock of scattering pigeons. If I remember correctly, the original Red Balloon ends with Pascal befriended in a big way; this movie, more realistically, shows no easy solution for the isolation of modern life.

It's slow, it's gentle, and it's amazing that a film about somewhere as French as Paris is coming from a Chinese director with no apparent link to the city. It's only tangentially related to the original, but Flight of the Red Balloon stands more as a reflection of lives too commonly lived.