The red balloon, from 'Flight of the Red Balloon'

Dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien
(NR) ★ ★

I am not well suited to review this film. When I watch a movie, I still expect it to be a movie and not an inert diorama about life that purports to contain the Meaning of It All. I do not mean to be unduly derisive of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon; I have no antipathy for it, only apathy. It floated across my screen for two hours, and I sat there attentively viewing it, distinctly aware that I couldn’t see inside of it. Like British filmmaker Mike Leigh, Hou wrote his film without dialogue, and collaborated with the actors to shape the characters and story, but I strain to identify any story at all, and its characters are undeveloped occupants of the cavernous narrative space.

Here’s what I know: Juliette Binoche stars, in an effective performance, as Suzanne, a frazzled voice-actress in a puppet theater, while her son Simon (Simon Iteanu) is cared for mostly by his new nanny, Song (Fang Song). Suzanne has an estranged husband living in Montreal, a daughter living in Brussels, and is in a legal dispute with her downstairs tennant, who has not paid his rent for a year. Meanwhile, a red balloon floats mysteriously through their lives — like an observer, or a specter, or a memory? Roger Ebert says, “If you have to ask what something symbolizes, it doesn’t,” and I’m inclined to take his advice.

When the end credits rolled, I was still waiting for the movie to begin. It all feels like a prelude to … something. I looked into the film on MetaCritic, where it scored a whopping 86, but the reviews from its most passionate fans are not edifying; they are equally obtuse. John Anderson of The Washington Post says, “… [Hou’s] movies are like the ocean — rhythmic, hypnotic, seemingly pacific yet roiling with color, motion and drama.” Manohla Dargis of The New York Times writes of the director, “In Flight of the Red Balloon he makes particularly expressive use of glass, as when Simon stares out a window and his gaze is met by his own reflection, a doubling that echoes the scene before, when the red balloon pauses next to its painted twinned image floating on a mural” — an expressive use of glass, Dargis says, but she doesn’t indicate what Hou is expressing.

I quote these critics not to belittle their opinions, but to observe that they are on a different wavelength from me. Of the balloon, Dargis writes that it “invokes the spirit of liberty and its elusiveness” and is “like a prowler (or an angel).” Boston Globe’s Ty Burr says, “It seems to be telling us something.” To Anderson, it “plays a far smaller role that in its predecessor, but it means the same thing: happiness.” Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips adds that it is “like a surrogate nanny.” I take from this that no one really knows what the heck it means, that it means everything or nothing depending on the feelings of the viewer. What matters is that it was meaningful to those critics, but not to me.

This review amounts to taking the long way to reach a simple conclusion: I didn’t get it. Inspired by the beloved 1956 French film The Red Balloon, Flight of the Red Balloon is written in invisible ink, and all I can see is the blankness of the page. It is composed of long, languorous shots, but where others have attributed great emotion to them I found Hou’s camera indifferent, uninvolved. But if I am wrong, it wouldn’t be the first time; there may be great beauty in it … somewhere.

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