Red Balloons

There are several narrative techniques that tend to alienate audiences all too quickly, and among them must certainly be counted all members of the reference family: self-, homage, allusion, etc. Whether it is because they go over one’s head or because they come off as overly pretentious, these tactics, especially in film, can be a kiss of death to the casual consumer.

Yet, when done properly, references can enhance a piece of art immensely, making the text richer and deeper while piquing the curiosity of some and giving a friendly nod to others. Hsiao-hsien Hou’s The Flight of the Red Balloon not only manages to do it properly, it manages to place itself in the same league as the works to which it pays tribute, and it does so with a joyful whimsicality and gentle restraint that move the viewer past voyeurism and into an unexpected place of personal familiarity.

The cinematic references span from, of course, Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 classic, The Red Balloon, to Tommy to Breathless, while making plenty of brief stops in between. More importantly, though, the movie pays homage to the art of filmmaking itself. By writing in a lead character who is a young art filmmaker, Hsiao-hsien decided to tread in murky meta waters, yet his film never gets bogged down by its within-a-film aspects. In fact, the scenes in which Song Fang, the aforementioned filmmaker character, records young Simon, the boy she has been hired to babysit, are some of the most honest and touching moments of adult/child interaction I have seen on film. The magic that emits naturally from her handheld camera, both when she is behind the lens and when Simon begins to take control, is a testament to the childlike sense of awe present in artistic self-discovery. While the eponymous red balloon does not take as central an on-screen role as in Lamorisse’s film, the camera, in addition to many other objects that make appearances in Simon and Song’s time together–pancakes, puppets, pinball machines–becomes enough of a vehicle of dreamy wonderment that the red orb’s greatest use in the film is that of a springboard into a discussion about modern film technology and editing trickery.

And while this kind of contemporary spin might sound as if it is doing Lamorisse’s objet d’art a disservice, Hsiao-hsien has actually managed, in moving away from the focus of The Red Balloon, to accomplish the very feat that Lamorisse did in 1956: to pay tribute to the joyous experience that is discovery. This time around, the discoveries are domesticated a bit, but we know that the real sense of wonder for Lamorisse’s Pascal was one of internal exploration anyway, and Simon keeps this intellectual curiosity very much alive. More importantly, Hsiao-hsien keeps alive the cinematic curiosity of Lamorisse and, with an unmistakable sense of love and admiration for the craft, honors the human passion for making–and watching–undefinable notions come alive on screen.

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