Arts & Events

Moving Pictures:‘Flight of the Balloon’: Updating a Classic

By Justin DeFreitas
Thursday May 15, 2008 - 10:17:00 AM

Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon (Le Ballon Rouge, 1956) was a film about the trials, tribulations and escapist fantasies of a child. Pascal and the red balloon were companions, and it was that friendship that sustained the boy throughout his daily travails of school and bullies and boredom. Lamorisse created a small masterpiece which managed to work on two levels: as an alluring evocation of the escapist fantasies of youth, and as a moving depiction of the day-to-day realities that make that escape so enticing. 

Hou Hsiao Hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon, opening Friday at Shattuck Cinemas in downtown Berkeley, uses the earlier film as a starting point but ventures off into new territory. Hsien’s movie is also about a boy and a balloon, but in the context of a world of adults; it presents young Simon (Simon Iteanu) growing up in a milieu that is both more modern and more complex than that of the earlier film, depicting the complexities and vagaries of grown-ups, and the effects they have on children. “Grown-ups are complicated,” Simon’s mother (Juliette Binoche) says, and this is the film’s central premise: Unlike Pascal in Lamorisse’s film, Simon is not shielded from the day-to-day struggles and emotional volatility of his mother’s world, and this both informs and hinders his development.  

In Lamorisse’s movie, adults are portrayed more or less as abstractions. In Hsien’s film, adults are not merely authority figures that control, guide and restrain, but living, breathing humans—companions and friends in a more grounded, commonplace reality. But they are ever-present mediators as well, shaping Simon’s experience at virtually every moment of his life. With the exception of the opening scene, Simon is constantly under adult supervision, unable to carve out any space or time to himself. Hsien illustrates this by rarely giving us an unobstructed view of Simon; our glimpses of him are refracted through the prism of the adults around him. And at crucial moments he has his back to the camera or his head turned away. Simon is a character about whom much can be inferred, but about whom precious little is expressed overtly. Thus Hsien manages to preserve the mysteries of childhood while clearly delineating the trappings of the boy’s upbringing. 

Throughout the film, Hsien’s camera is patient and somewhat removed, reminiscent of the work of the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu in its depiction of the rhythms of everyday life. Hsien prefers that we observe the action unobtrusively from a distance. In fact, 45 minutes passes before we get our first close-up of Simon, and nearly an hour before we get a clear look at Binoche—and even these moments are fleeting. Hsien’s approach instead emphasizes the commonplace; there are no dramatic turns on which the plot hinges, and no correspondingly jarring camera angles or movements, just a series of everyday scenes, with improvised dialogue that feels more overheard that delivered. We are not watching plot develop, we are seeing character revealed, relationships brought into focus. 

This approach is thematically appropriate, as the balloon too is relegated to the role of observer, nuzzling up to windows and skylights in an effort to gain entry into Simon’s life. But the boy is too mired in the adult world, too grounded in reality to take a flight of fancy.  

But there is still hope for Simon. In the final scene, Hsien suggests that the boy may still discover that untapped wellspring of childlike wonder—and it won’t be through the guidance of his mother or his nanny or his sister or his neighbors, nor through the video games and technological toys they buy for him, but rather through his introduction to the world of art. 





Directed by Hou Hsiao Hsien.  

Starring Juliet Binoche, Simon Iteanu, Song Fang. 113 minutes.  

In French with English subtitles. Opening Friday at Shattuck Cinemas.