If you were to judge Red Balloon based on its summary alone, you’d think that it was one of those cliched first-love-coming-of-age high school stories. You would be right, but also wrong.
A Taiwanese BL that you can stream on Gaga OOLala, Red Balloon’s story is not particularly new: Xia Zi Chen – the perfect student, well loved and respected by all, and his father a member of the school board – meets Li Xiang Wan, his new roommate, and a friendship between them grows into something more. Been there, done that, right?
While the plot sounds familiar, it is in the execution that Red Balloon excels. I am constantly complaining in my reviews about short form series which don’t give the characters time to grow, but there are some exceptions that manage the limited time beautifully, and this falls under that category.
Told in the form of a flashback, Red Balloon does not waste time on filler or fluff, the story is told in the ten minute time span of each episode, giving us just enough information from which to extrapolate the rest of the story. It isn’t limited to just the love story of Zi Chen and Xiang Wan, it addresses larger issues that members of the LGBTQ+ community have to face. Xu Yang, a classmate of the two who does not conform to traditional images of masculinity, is subjected to bullying by his classmates. He is told to “behave like other boys” to be accepted, a victim of a cruel society that refuses to accept difference. We see glimpses of Xiang Wan’s previous relationship with his teacher that ended in heartbreak. And it’s not just sexuality, we also see how Zi Chen has to deal with his own personal tragedies – the death of his mother, the fact that his father (a powerful gangster) is developing symptoms of memory loss. Some plot beats are predictable – just as Zi Chen and Xiang Wan act on their feelings for each other, they are caught and forced to separate for almost a lifetime – but we already know from the first episode that they reunite, so it feels like it’s less for drama and more to drive home the reality that many same-sex couples live in. It also introduces the symbolism of the titular red balloons – never touching the ground, floating above it in the hopes of meeting again in the sky.
The beauty of Red Balloon is in the acting and the characters, who feel real, and we empathise with them. The women in the series are, thankfully, never demonised or made into plot contrivances: in the very first episode we see a grown up Zi Chen and his wife discussing the failure of their marriage, and it’s wonderful to see such a mature conversation, and the finale gives a perfect closure to their relationship.
Before I close out, I should add that this series contains some disturbing content, so trigger warnings for attempted suicide, bullying and homophobia. The ending is, however, hopeful, and therefore definitely worth a watch.