(Dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien, France/Taiwan, 2007)
Brilliance is rarely over-pronounced in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films. The director forgoes flashy camera tricks, suspense-building narratives, and an aesthetic that draws attention to itself – all three reasons why many head to the theater each weekend, and all three reasons why many don’t connect with Hou’s cinema. But, in his unmistakable tableau that has subtly evolved over the years, his films exude brilliance in their quiet, gentle pacing that famously requires both a patience and dedication to his craft from viewers. His genius often surfaces in unexpected moments like an expertly staged fight sequence shot atypically in static wide shot pushing violence to the background in City of Sadness, or strict adherence to a self-imposed stylistic parameter that saw the filmmaker make unusual use of fades within a sequence to cut to separate shots in Flowers of Shanghai, or a gorgeous camera movement in a film of few of them that slowly glides down from the lit ceiling of a billiard room to rest on a pool table and his characters in Three Times. In this regard, then, Hou’s latest Flight of the Red Balloon may be his least immediately engaging given its largely static and minimal plot, yet it’s easily one of his most rewarding as a remarkably deep work of beautiful images and contemplation.
For his first venture outside Asia, Hou received funding from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris to produce his France-set film that, as its title suggests, pays homage to Albert Lamorisse’s classic and beloved short film The Red Balloon. And, though Lamorisse’s work can be felt throughout Hou’s – most notably in both films’ central pre-adolescent male character and unexplained fantastical presence of the titular balloon – Flight still fits in quite nicely with Hou’s body of work as a whole, especially in his current trajectory of exploring urban isolation following Millennium Mambo, Café Lumière, and one-third of Three Times. His latest happens to be the best of the four finally offering a solid and compelling answer to Wong Kar-wai’s monopoly on the subject. And, perhaps this is why Flight succeeds in ways the others don’t; urban malaise is the backdrop for the characters in Flight amidst myriad other trials they face rather than the point as it felt in both Millennium Mambo and Three Times. For though Flight does speak to the increasing, paradoxical loneliness of the modern city – the closer people get, the farther away from everyone they feel – it highlights a potential remedy; hence the inclusion of the stalking red balloon, a symbolic presence of what keeps the film’s three primary characters from despair: companionship.
Thus, in its essence, Flight of the Red Balloon is an apt and faithful expansion of Lamorisse’s modest work that offered its protagonist a surrogate friend in the candy-colored, hovering orb. But, as it is an expansion, it’s also a much fuller portrait of modern life than the childlike fable it’s based upon. As with all of Hou’s films, however, the narrative thrust of most films – major events, climactic exchanges, histrionics passing for performance – is gloriously kicked to the sidelines in favor of highlighting the moments in between. Hou’s film, then, is a beautifully tender snapshot of everyday life. It begins with Simon (Simon Iteanu), a young Parisian boy who’s at once mature enough to ride the city’s railway system alone, and yet appropriately gripped by his imagination as he attempts to coax a lost balloon to descend from the tree where it bounces between the branches trying to break free. Simon lives with his mother Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), a professional puppeteer juggling the various challenging aspects of her life – work, raising a son alone, an estranged boyfriend, a distant daughter, and a fellow tenant that regularly takes advantage of her. In hopes of better managing at least one facet of her chaotic life, she hires Song (Fang Song), a soft-spoken film student from Taiwan, to be Simon’s nanny. Most of the film concerns the relationship that forms between the three as Song helps Suzanne wrap Simon in a cocoon of protection and guidance in the absence of the boy’s father.
As expected with Hou, there is no bubbling tension between boy and his new nanny, or this new mother-like figure and the boy’s actual mother as one might witness in a Hollywoodization of the same story. Instead, Hou uses this simple set-up to explore the various strands of modern urban life – a single mother balancing work and home, a foreigner in a strange land navigating extreme cultural differences, a child growing up in a technology saturated age. Of course, each of these is archetypal of the “Modern Age” in art, and yet there’s a remarkably organic synthesis with which Hou weaves these experiences together. As elementary as it might seem (and it might actually be in a lesser filmmaker’s hands), it’s that perfectly spherical balloon that ties them all together. It isn’t clear throughout whether or not the balloon exists (though Song mentions both Lamorisse’s short and a filmic project of her own centered on red balloons in Paris), but it certainly has no bearing on the story either way. It exists as a function of cinema, proof that Hou and artists like him work in a medium wholly unique from other narrative art forms. The wandering balloon pops up here and there, never derailing the film’s narrative, but there to both complement the themes of Hou’s film and draw our attention to the work as a film itself.
The balloon is at once the focal point of Flight and merely a fixture of the background. It plays a minor role in terms of the film’s central story, but its presence reminds us of the companionship that each of its characters needs and the fluidity that marks the life each of these characters leads. Like the balloon, Hou’s characters continue to float on despite the challenges or obstacles they face. Suzanne often appears to be teetering on the verge of losing control of her life, but instead of the film adopting a posture of chastisement toward her parenting, Hou offers the pair of Song and Simon as a calming, balancing presence to her volatility. And then, in other ways, it seems that Suzanne is the glue that holds this makeshift family together providing strong maternal love for her son and extending a hand of friendship to a member of a group typically ostracized in most societies. Hou’s camera follows suit. From the film’s staggering opening shot as the camera mimics the buoyant yet elegant movement of the spontaneous balloon, Hou adopts this floating quality to the entirety of the film as the camera gently bounces around Suzanne’s apartment or the streets of Paris in a near dreamlike state. The effect is utterly enchanting.
The accomplishments of Hou’s Flight of the Red Balloon are many – its gorgeous camerawork, meditative pacing, and thoroughly and realistically inhabited world (one of the film’s finest scenes features a static shot of Song cleaning the kitchen framed by the clutter of Suzanne’s apartment) – and yet as an honest and earnest portrait of modern life in the city, Hou’s beautiful film achieves something near revelatory.