Flight of the Red Balloon Review
Made as a commission to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris (one of a proposed series of films, the only other one finished being Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours, which this perfectly matches in theme and tone), Flight of the Red Balloon (Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge) is only the second time Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien has made a film outside his own country. That previous film, Café Lumière (2005) was also a commission, made in Japan as a homage to Yasujiro Ozu and in many respects Flight of the Red Balloon matches it in tone and treatment, Hou here looking to the 1956 classic Albert Lamorisse short film The Red Balloon as a point of reference and influence.
Flight of the Red Balloon indeed opens with a lovely tribute to the Lamorisse, a floating red balloon introducing the viewer to Paris, similarly evoking a childlike sense of wonder at the beauty of the city as it is viewed by Song Fang (Song Fang), a young Chinese film student who has come to study there. Song has also been engaged by Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) to act as a child minder for her 7 year-old son Simon (Simon Iteanu) while she is preoccupied with her career as a voice artist in a marionette show, and the young film student makes use of the time she has with Simon to create her own version of the classic film Le Ballon Rouge.
The film’s power and influence however seeps into all aspects of the lives of Song, Suzanne and Simon, reawakening memories of childhood, particularly for Suzanne, creating links to the past and forcing her to re-evaluate her present circumstances where she is caught up in a dispute with her tenants – an unwelcome leftover from her former marriage. Hou’s film however, the characters only defined in outline by the director without any script is then, like the red balloon, allowed to float freely. The initial inspiration taken from Lamorisse by Hou does indeed seem to be that of the loss of childhood innocence and re-evaluation of the world around us.
Without any defined script, the actors are left to put their own personalities and real-life circumstances into the story, improvising and forging connections inspired by the setting. Those settings appropriately include the mystery of childhood shown in a painting in the Musée d’Orsay and the Parisian childhood haunts of les Jardins du Luxembourg with its history of puppet shows (much of which Hou gleaned from Adam Gopnik’s excellent book ‘Paris to the Moon’ on his experience of being an American journalist based in Paris), but memories of childhood are also evoked for Suzanne, whose grandfather was also a puppeteer, in an earlier film made by Song called Origins. Through a variety of means and perspectives then, these memories and circumstances which make these people who they are, forge common connections between them characters – not just through the obvious means of Simon, who impassively observes the complications of the adult world around him, but through Song learning to live and adapt to the French lifestyle and Suzanne’s coming to terms with her past and attempting to redefine her future.
As with his Ozu tribute Café Lumière, Hou Hsiao-hsien finds other means to express their connections, using trains as a means of bringing people together and of showing them moving forward and making points of connection, but much is also evoked purely with the use of light and sound. Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing once again works miracles with light, colour and reflections, overlaying images in the window of a café on in a car windscreen, allowing passing objects (or a red balloon) to briefly illuminate some parts and obscure others, impressionistically showing an ever-shifting perspective of reality in all its beautiful complexity.
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s version of Flight of the Red Balloon is released in the UK by Network in two editions, a simple edition with the film only, and a 2-DVD set including the Albert Lamorisse film The Red Balloon on the second disc. The two Lamorisse short films, The Red Balloon and White Mane are also available separately in an edition on their own from Network and reviewed here. The edition reviewed here is the single disc edition of Flight of the Red Balloon. The film is presented on a single-layer disc and the transfer is in PAL format. This edition is region-free.
For the most part, the film looks exceptionally well on DVD. The image is soft, warmly toned and autumnal, a look that is undoubtedly intentional, echoing the look and feel of Lamorisse’s Technicolor original and the characteristics of Hou’s Café Lumière. Depending on the sensitivity of your display towards macroblocking however, the DVD-5 encoding can show up blocky compression artefacts, cross-colouration and, in darker sections of the film, low-level noise and crushing of blacks. Chroma noise and a slight case of oversaturation can also be detected in the deep reds of the floating balloon that appears throughout the film. On the whole however, the film still looks marvellous and the requisite tone and character is conveyed in the transfer.
There is only one audio option, a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix, but I’m not sure that the film would benefit greatly from a surround mix in any case. The volume level is a bit low however and it’s not a greatly dynamic mix, but it’s generally adequate for the limited demands placed on the soundtrack.
English subtitles are provided in a clear white font and are optional.
On the single disc release of the film, the only extra feature is the film’s Trailer (1:40), which certainly captures the tone and nature of the film.
Inevitably, working as Hou Hsiao-hsien does, shooting the film in 30 days with no script and relying on the actors to improvise situations with their characters, nothing much seems to happen in Flight of the Red Balloon on a superficial level, the situations being those of coping with everyday personal and professional problems. Hou understands however that there are often more complex emotions and memories that direct our lives, and masterfully finds a means of expressing that in what is for him a foreign environment and lifestyle, through the influence of a classic work of French cinema, Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon. Flight of the Red Balloon is not a major work from Hou Hsiao-hsien, but it’s a beautiful one that touches on many of the director’s classic themes.