Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Flight of the Red Balloon

Dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien

There's a scene in Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind where Kate Winslet's character, Clementine, is crying and saying how “people don't realize how lonely it is to a kid”. Adults have the unfortunate ability to dramatize their childhoods and this tends to lead in one of two polar directions: the highly simplified notion that childhood is blissed-out ignorance, or conversely, that it is a wash of pain that has done little to prepare a person for the heavier burden of adult life. The truth is that childhood is a combination of the two. It is both sad and happy. Children notice things (like large red balloons) that adults do not. They don't have the pretension to take themselves too seriously. For children, puppet shows are fun. For selected adults they are an art form. Children are upset by the shouts of their parents, not by what their parents are shouting about. As we get older we insinuate complication into our lives in the form of responsibility, paranoia, fear and doubt, among many others. Despite it being somewhat backwards-thinking, we do this in order to safe guard ourselves against the idea that we don't matter, or that we're going to die someday: ideas that do not exist in children. Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon is a remarkable pseudo-documentary on the discrepancies and similarities between adults and children. It illustrates very poignantly how the more accustomed we become to aspects of our lives (people, places, foods, etc.) the more we forget the simple things that used to give us pleasure.

Flight of the Red Balloon centers around three characters. Simon (Simon Iteanu) is a shy elementary school boy who lives with his divorced mother, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche). Suzanne has recently taken on a young Chinese film student, Song (Fang Song), to look after Simon while Suzanne is away working as a voice actor for a professional puppet theater. Suzanne is a high strung but vibrant woman who has a habit of having near-nervous breakdowns in front of Simon and Song. The film is slow and steady, a combination of Hsiao-Hsien's temperance behind the camera and the haunting performances given by his actors. The film will occasionally break into a flurry of action, in an almost apologetic way, in order to make up for time spent staring out the windows of trains at the French countryside, or admiring the bustling street corners of Paris. What makes the film so unexpected is the way Hsiao-Hsien captures details. His filming is detached from his scenarios and by doing so we are able to enter into another world as an independent and invisible observer. He spends most of the movie filming mundane moments that would make up any average day in the life of a city boy and his nanny. However, there is a dedication here to the sublime. While he captures the smallest moments of the trio's lives, in the moments where Simon casts a sidelong glance at his mother; Song unwraps 'un gateau' for Simon; Suzanne exhales deeply while rubbing her forehead after a long, tiresome talk with her friend Philip about her downstairs lodger Marc who hasn't been paying his rent, that the film comes to life. You become so detached from the concept of watching a film that you begin to read characters not by what they say, but by what they do. Just like a child. There is a deep subconscious understanding of each moment of the film, which evades standard dramatic structure. You can't judge this film on the merits of it's sweep or grandeur, but rather on its uncanny ability to say a lot without saying anything at all. In the end there is no great conflict and thus no kind of a resolution. The film finishes with a faraway shot of a red balloon hovering above a dusty blue Parisian sky in the late afternoon. It makes you feel vaguely lonely, but curious at the same time. Where is the wind going to take that balloon next? What other little children will be entranced by its simplicity? What will become of it?

There is a remarkably child-like and almost magical quality about Flight of the Red Balloon. Throughout the film it seems to be floating just out of sight, hovering, not as a distraction but as a subtle addition to what would otherwise be a rather plain, formless family drama. Its tough to put into words because the film never puts it into words either. Perhaps its the feeling of comfort in the resilience of a child or the selflessness of a young college students trying to capture the magic of childhood on a portable camera. Perhaps its how the film seems to suggest how everyone gets lonely but no one has to be alone. Whatever it is Hsiao-Hsien captures it like a lightning bug in a jar and holds it up for everyone to see.

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