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  Flight of the Red Balloon

Starring: Juliette Binoche, Hippolyte Girardot, Song Fang, Simon Iteaneu

Directed by: Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Produced by: Kristina Larsen, Francois Margolin

Written by: Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Francois Margolin

Distributor: First Take (IFC)


As seen at AFI Fest 2007:

     Flight of the Red Balloon may be the first picture by international-favorite Hou Hsiao-Hsien to generate next-to-no buzz. By making that statement, I don’t mean to imply that the film is a bad one—one could certainly fare far worse—but rather seek to point out that it is lacking in the extraordinary qualities necessary to allow it to exist in the same sphere as the rest of the renowned filmmaker’s work. If asked to describe the movie in a single word, I would call it “pleasant,” which might seem ironic given the fact that it is about strained familial relationships. Strangely, however, the adjective fits: with Flight of the Red Balloon, Hou has crafted a delicate little slice-of-life.

     The main problem with the film may be that it offers too plain a vision of everyday life. The only dressing accompanying Hou’s depiction of the central characters is the presence of a whimsical red balloon that follows them around (a nod to one of the writer/director’s favorite films, 1956’s thirty-four-minute The Red Balloon). Any symbolism found in the picture—many critics have commented on that which concerns a supporting character’s video-camera—fails to form a cohesive, satisfying message. What is left, as I said, is a film that is just pleasant.

     In the lead role, Juliette Binoche sports a rugged blonde dye-job as Suzanne, the stressed-out but sincere and sympathetic mother of a young boy named Simon (Simon Iteanu). Suzanne works hard as a voice-artist for a Paris puppet-theatre and, because Simon’s father lives abroad, she is forced to hire Chinese-born nanny and film-school student, Song (Song Fang), to take care of him during the day. Song and Simon spend most of their time together at a local bakery, where he plays pinball; in a nearby park, where they aimlessly walk and talk; and at home, where Simon often takes piano lessons. Daytime is usually the least stressful part of the boy’s day because it means he doesn’t have to deal with his mother’s often-frantic personality. Suzanne is constantly strained due to being overworked and being abused by her downstairs tenant’s careless attitude toward her.

       All of the main characters in the film are affable, and the viewer comes to sympathize with them very easily. Their emotional plights come across as being both authentic and genuine, primarily because the cast provides them a distinctly likable aura. (Binoche is particularly stunning in her role, immersing herself in a type of character that she rarely tackles as an actress.) All the while, cinematographer Pin Bing Lee’s luscious command of Hou’s sweeping imagery retains a beauty that has the transfixing ability to saturate the audience in a soothing atmosphere, a remarkable feat given the film’s less-than-fluffy content.

     But, again, I digress. There is no reason for the viewer to care about any of these people in any greater sense than the one presented by the plot. Just because they are well-portrayed and amiable does not mean that they are significant. Of the Hou films that I have seen, Flight of the Red Balloon is by far the least layered. Sure, the movie is more diverting and more densely imagined than the average disposable character-study, but it is still disposable nonetheless. Every time I try to find greater praise for the film somewhere within me, the only descriptor I can offer it is the exact same one that I did in the opening of this review: pleasant.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 12.1.2007

Screened on: 11.10.2007 at the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood, CA.


Flight of the Red Balloon is Not Rated and runs 114 minutes.

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