The balloonsare flying

Balloons are floating between Taiwan and France, and lonely people are watching them.

by Michael Garberich

An inflated balloon is a strange thing. Air on the outside, air on the inside. As long as you’ve got your rubber and your air, you’ve got a pretty decent balloon. It’s a vapid structure. Not much substance to a balloon; tie a string to its knotted end and instantly you have entertainment. It may be crude entertainment by today’s standards, but there is something oddly satisfying about taking a walk on a lazy afternoon and making a floating piece of rubber follow you around.

Flight of the Red Balloon

DIRECTED BY: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
STARRING: Juliette Binoche, Simon Iteanu, Fang Song
PLAYING AT: Uptown Theater, 2906 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis (612) 825-6006

So if we can agree that there is something a bit strange about a balloon, we shouldn’t have a problem agreeing that modeling a movie after it is even stranger. One’s a sphere, the other’s a rectangle (typically with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1). And that’s only taking into consideration the geometry of the two. Yet whether the round peg does or does not fit into the hollowed out square, this is exactly the structure Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-Hsien seems to have had in mind while making “Flight of the Red Balloon.” And so we have to wonder, if a balloon is our model, what does that make our movie?

Turns out it makes for a great movie, though great in the way that a balloon makes for a great toy. It’s relative to what we consider entertainment, and technological advancements have skewed our expectations.

“Flight of the Red Balloon” is set in Paris, but that is partially because of the producer’s demands – it is the first part in a series commissioned by the Musée d’Orsay (on the Left Bank of the Seine), and each movie in the series has one requirement: that the museum appears in it at some point.

But if you’re going to visit Paris for a single museum, you might as well find lodging and get to know the people. And that’s the challenge the movie proposes. It’s less overt than the garbled continents of “Babel,” and less obnoxious than a Verizon Wireless commercial. But like those two before it, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s movie suggests two possible reasons for why we have media (for which movies are only part of a set): to help keep us connected with one another first, and for entertainment second. Because even in a city as loving as Paris, and especially in a city as populated as Paris, two still comes down to one-plus-one.

Over the opening credits’ black screen, we hear the voice of Simon (played by Simon Iteanu), a young boy and one of three main characters. “Hey balloon. You heard me. Are you coming with me?” he says. When we first see and hear Simon, the balloon is out of frame and he’s seemingly talking to nothing. In fact, pondering whether the balloon really exists is a jaunty philosophical exercise but not much else, like wondering if Neo really held the spoon or not (Keanu Reeves did, and that’s what matters). The balloon, being a balloon, doesn’t respond. It’s content to float near leafy tree tops. It casually splits up the sunlight in what is the first of many beautiful shots involving a balloon and splitting light. It dips and bobs and maneuvers its string like a plump cat giving its tail a self-satisfied twirl.

But the balloon, still being a balloon – but not acting entirely like a balloon – doesn’t seem to be wholly committed to the physical world. When Simon boards the metro, there is the balloon, seeing him off from the platform. When Simon’s busy receiving piano lessons from his neighbor, the balloon is loitering outside the apartment, listening in, noting the tempo like a self-actualized metronome, free of any fixed measurement.

And where is Simon’s mother (Juliette Binoche) while Simon is being stalked by a red balloon? She’s busy voicing puppets for a traditional Chinese puppet show (in French translation) involving a boiling ocean, an art form that is to movies what the balloon is to the Nintendo Wii – less fun.

She and Simon’s father are divorced. He lives in Montreal and their other daughter, Simon’s sister, goes to school in Brussels. Because she’s so busy with work, Simon’s mother hires a nanny to watch him. And so with the arrival of Song (Fang Song), a film student from Beijing who’s fluent in French, we complete the movie’s third shape, the triangle.

Binoche is the lively counterpoint to the balloon’s sedated trip over and through Paris. She sometimes comes off as less human than the balloon, a comment that describes a quality of her character, not the quality of her acting (which is exceptional). She’s often out of breath, having just finished one task and taking a brief pause before dashing off to begin the next. On the other hand, the balloon is filled with air, and it stays filled with air. When Binoche bursts into their apartment’s narrow quarters, she seems like the guest who got drunk off champagne while the rest of the party was still deciding on aperitifs. Whenever she exits a scene all becomes calm; if you tried, you could probably hear the mice that live in the theater eating popcorn off the floor.

This one’s no soaring tale of human triumph, nor is it an ironic take on that triumph’s futility. The action is very, very low. Iron Man soars; the red balloon ambles. You crawl into a giant balloon (or shrink enough to squeeze into a normal balloon) and float around Paris, watching these three people who are often watching one another, even though they don’t look at one another.

In one scene, Simon’s mother asks him what he learned in school that day. He’s politely looking off to the side at a bookshelf. “Math,” he says, head still turned. “Math? What math?” she asks, calm for the first time. “Multiplication. Addition. Subtraction,” he lists the three and stops, allowing you to complete the list, “division.”

Rarely does a movie make such effective use of glass. Scene after scene, one person watches another person through a pane of glass. Or one person looks out a window, and we see that person twice – the person and the reflection. Here is a director making an honest plea for his medium, because between himself and his scene, there is always a lens, that one round piece of glass. It’s simple division.

“Flight of the Red Balloon,” then, is three things: it is the balloon that defies an insistent draft, sinking when it should rise, and vice-versa; it is a bright rectangle at the front of a dark room; and it is a sharp piece of glass that can divide us into two and three and four and five, until we have become numerous enough to flood the streets of Paris. And after we do, as we have, we branch off elsewhere – a large network on a mighty big balloon, the third in an orbit of eight, according to the most recent calculations.

But it was Neo’s job to save the world. It’s the balloon’s job to be a balloon. The balloon, it just so happens, is much better at what it does.