Like the ambiguous floating metaphor dancing atop its Parisian landscapes, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon feels just out of reach, a slow, beautiful juxtaposition of grace and solitude guided by somber prevailing winds of change. It’s a film defined by rhythmic characterizations, but one haunted by a void of emotional expression. Hou’s characters, which include a distressed puppeteer named Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), her son Simon (Simon Iteanu), and a Chinese film student named Song (Fang Song), reflect different phases of individual artistic expression/frustration, contrasting souls on the verge of discovery or doubt, often left alone to reflect on their own relationship with the world around them. Elements of fantasy share equal weight with trivial interactions.
But since this is a Hou film, the camera glides just as effortlessly through cluttered interiors as spacious exteriors and nothing feels out of place or inconsequential. Flight of the Red Balloon once again proves Hou’s mastery of composing meticulously calculated human moments through silence and nuance, and the film’s measured pacing says more about the filmmaker’s obsessions with time and space than anything else. If the end result feels a bit incomplete, it’s only because Hou’s fleeting glimpse at melancholy and longing overwhelms traditional modes of cinematic expression, leaving us wanting more of what can’t be defined.