How is childhood like a red balloon? Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon gives many possible answers.
We watch seven-year-old Simon—played marvelously by Simon Iteanu—meander along Paris sidewalks, his progress as lazy and jaunty as the path of that red balloon above him. His lackadaisical stride stands in stark contrast to the crisscrossing streets and tracks that bind the city; he's not yet imprisoned by the grid-like adult world of hurry and hustle. Under his mop of tousled red hair, his eyes cartoon-wide, this kid has sails open to catch a whim. He'll even shout up at the balloon to come down and play with him.
We know that the weightlessness of Simon's existence, the whimsy in his wonder, will soon end. We sense it when he refuses to welcome the balloon as it descends. We see it in how he's drawn to flashy, mechanized activity, like his sister's PlayStation.
Flight's bittersweet tone comes from its focus on childhood, and even a quality of childhood that the harsh city life might soon burst like a balloon. You could call it The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but that title's taken.
And speaking of Unbearable Lightness …
In a visceral, spirited performance that rates among her very best, Juliette Binoche plays Simon's frazzled, single mother, Suzanne. With her energy manifested in an electrified blonde hairdo, Suzanne is too busy to know whether she's coming or going. In an unforgettable and surprising reveal, we learn that Suzanne works as an actress in a puppet theater. Like Hou himself, she's translating timeless Chinese art for present-day Parisians, and the work unleashes a playful expressiveness that makes her irresistible.
But between rehearsals, Suzanne careens like a pinball from one activity ...1
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Flight of the Red Balloon
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