Hou Hsiao-hsien’s trademark long takes call attention to the passage of time, and as such they’re intimately attuned to his ongoing thematic interest in the bonds between the past, present, and future. This preoccupation is once again ubiquitous in Flight of the Red Balloon, the Taiwanese director’s latest tour de force, which finds the director integrating himself into a new, foreign setting—Paris—via the medium of cinema. Whereas Hou’s entrée into Japan in Café Lumière was facilitated by the work of Yasujirô Ozu, here his channel is Albert Lamorisse’s classic children’s film The Red Balloon, to which his newest effort both pays loving homage as well as utilizes as a subtle meta device for yet another of his inquiries into the ways collective cultural history and memories continue to intensely impact the here and now. In this instance, Hou’s assimilation into his alien setting is assisted by Song (Song Fang), a Chinese film student who is hired by harried single mother Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) to be the nanny for her son Simon (Simon Iteanu), and whose meticulously visualized estrangement from her surroundings—a state of being that slowly dissolves throughout the story’s course—marks her as a clear surrogate for the filmmaker.
As with its source material, Flight of the Red Balloon depicts Simon following a mysterious red balloon about the City of Lights. Its focus, however, is more squarely on the tightly knit social circle that surrounds the young boy. The center of this microcosmic universe is Suzanne, who is increasingly, frustratingly detached from Simon—a notion most gracefully conveyed by the offhand question, “So, you play pinball these days?”—thanks to the tumultuousness of her daily life. With her author boyfriend off in Montreal writing a never-ending novel, and his friends (who live in the flat downstairs) incapable of paying rent, Suzanne is cast as a thoroughly frazzled maternal figure, and Hou dedicates copious time to her rollercoaster emotional swings. Nonetheless, streamlined narrative has never been a great Hou priority, and despite its clear plot dilemmas and character conflicts, the film doesn’t attempt to provide a conventionally straightforward story. Instead, not unlike its titular object, it glides and bounces to and fro between its central trio (Song, Simon, Suzanne) and their everyday routines and activities, all of which are intrinsically conjoined by the director’s fascination with the lingering effects of yesteryear on today.
“Your film touches on very deep things I thought I’d forgotten,” remarks Suzanne to Song, and the notion of cinema as a conduit for remembering—for communing with the past—is ever-present, from Suzanne’s subsequent request that Song transfer old 8mm movies of her grandfather and daughter Louise (Louise Margolin) to DVD, to Hou’s employment of his source material. His tale, in a basic sense, pays respect to Lamorisse’s. And yet the fact that Song and Suzanne discuss Lamorisse’s film, and that Song intends to make a short based on it, and moreover that the Simon-chasing-the-balloon scenes can be viewed as Song’s own film footage (not to mention the scenes of Song shooting her own film), all create the impression of time and reality folding in on themselves. What was, is, and will be are all entwined in Flight of the Red Balloon, so that Suzanne’s memory of Simon and Louise playing together—their bodies, as is Hou’s wont, framed in a doorway—seamlessly coexists with the current action at hand. Similarly, such a rapport is expressed through a majestically understated sequence in which Simon’s anecdote about Louise segues into that very memory, which itself captures a sense of both the past’s departure (a boat on the Seine leaving its dock) and its omnipresence (Louise and Simon entering the foreground by walking down steps).
The red balloon comes to symbolize adolescence and, when it bounces up against a painted image of itself on a building’s wall, of adolescents’ rapport with their ancestors. But Hou doesn’t stress these points, and the orb’s flights around Paris (set to bittersweet piano tinkling) epitomize the film’s atmospheric lightness. That buoyancy comes through most strikingly during scenes involving Suzanne working as the vocalist for puppet shows, a profession that—as evidenced by Hou’s 1994 epic The Puppetmaster—is one dear to the director’s childhood, and stands as his favorite evocation of art’s ability to afford us a dialogue with our personal/national histories. Meanwhile, it is Binoche, blond and bothered, who proves to be Flight of the Red Balloon’s heart, the actress instinctively taking to Hou’s semi-improvisatory methods to craft an endearing (if not idyllic) portrait of motherhood under siege. Whether rustling about her cramped, ramshackle apartment in search of old documents, generously giving a famed Chinese puppeteer a treasured postcard from her youth, or simply brushing the locks out of her face while talking to Simon about his school day, Suzanne is wholly authentic and alive. At once commanding and vulnerable, Binoche is a revelation, dominating space in ways ultimately almost as masterful as her director.