At one point in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s new film, Flight of the Red Balloon, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche)—the perpetually frazzled mother to her son Simon (Simon Iteanu)—says to the Taiwanese nanny/filmmaker Song (Fang Song), “Your film touches on very deep things I thought I’d forgotten.” That right there might be Hou’s own mission statement in miniature. Throughout his varied and distinguished filmography, Hou has always been interested in history, memory, and how people then and now deal with, or simply remain ignorant of, both. From early autobiographical features like Dust in the Wind and A Time to Live and a Time to Die, through his unofficial trilogy about 20th-century Taiwanese history (City of Sadness; The Puppetmaster; Good Men, Good Women), to recent features like the Japan-set Café Lumière and the tripartite Three Times, Hou has always attempted to convey, through his immersive long takes and elaborate mise-en-scène, the march of time passing right in front of our eyes, whether the characters onscreen are conscious of it or not. That, of course, may be just another way of saying that not a lot necessarily happens in a Hou Hsiao-hsien film; however, the little things that do happen—an affectionate hand gesture, say—can speak volumes both for the characters onscreen and for the receptive audience member.
Obviously, such a slow, deliberate approach won’t suit all temperaments; heck, it doesn’t always suit mine. But Flight of the Red Balloon absolutely enthralled and fascinated me from start to finish, even though Hou is more or less employing precisely the same style he’s been using in his films for the past 20+ years. By the end of this one, I felt lightheaded and happy to be alive. I’m not sure I want to know someone who finds this particular Hou Hsiao-hsien work “boring.”
But let me put aside the hyperbole for now because, at his best, Hou invites both emotional involvement and intellectual contemplation.
Flight of the Red Balloon, perhaps it goes without saying, is inspired by the classic 1956 Albert Lamorisse short film, The Red Balloon, in which the title object is seen following a young boy around while the adults around him barely notice it and the other kids in town try to grab a hold of it. But the new film isn’t so much a remake as it is a re-imagining of the basic idea to suit the director’s own deeply personal thematic concerns. In other words, it works regardless of whether or not you are familiar with Lamorisse’s wonderful original.
Still, some of the differences between the two works are worth pointing out. For one thing, Hou has toned down the whimsy of Lamorisse’s film, playing up the real-world aspects of his story—the way Suzanne, for example, is trying to raise her son, maintain a roof over their heads, produce a puppet show, and deal with an absent partner and careless tenants. One would think that the idea of having a red balloon following a child around town would rudely clash with the film’s concern with real-world hardships, but Hou goes a step further and altogether deemphasizes the presence of the balloon itself. During the first shot, the balloon appears as the camera tilts upward while Simon talks to it; subsequently, it pops up every once in a while, floating above Paris, as a kind of punctuation to things happening on the ground. Instead of becoming a second main character, as it is in Lamorisse’s film, Hou turns the red balloon into a spectral presence, hovering not only above Simon and the city, but also above the film itself, its innocence and purity infusing each and every shot.
Of course, the mere fact that a Hou Hsiao-hsien work features something that one would consider “whimsical” is news enough. Flight of the Red Balloon, in many small ways, does represent a stretch for Hou, a director who has almost always grounded his films in the realities of different places and times in order to open windows to worlds beyond his delicate movie frames. Here, arguably for the first time ever, he’s trying to blend the fantastical with the real and, miraculously, one never intrudes upon the other except in the most sublime ways. This may well be his airiest, freest-feeling film in quite a while; if much of Hou’s recent work seemed weighed down by an awareness of history’s role in present-day lives, Flight mostly lives in the present, delving into history only on a personal level (i.e. intimate character histories rather than national ones) and focusing on the travails of his main characters in the moment, not in the context of a larger, longer narrative.
Yet departure or not, Flight of the Red Balloon always feels like a Hou Hsiao-hsien work, and not just because of his typically lengthy master shots and careful framing. His usual concerns with history, identity, art and reality are all present in the film, but, like the titular balloon, they all hover over it without unduly imposing themselves.
For one thing, consider that this is the second Hou film, after Café Lumière, to be set outside his native Taiwan, and that both films show the director attempting to explore his themes in the context of a culture different from his own. But he isn’t quite ready to throw off Taiwan completely even in these two films; thus, in Café Lumière, he has his half-Taiwanese main character, Yoko, pregnant by a Taiwanese boyfriend and also researching a Taiwanese composer for a book she’s writing. In Flight, he features a Taiwanese character who is, fittingly, a film student. (A stand-in for the director?) Either Hou just likes the safety net of some kind of Taiwanese presence in both films, or he’s grasping for something universal—how searching for history, or merely trying to make a living in an unfamiliar place, is something all humans of different races can understand.
But the similarities between Flight of the Red Balloon and Café Lumière more or less end right there. Believe it or not, Hou’s new film shares more of a kinship with his resolutely Taiwan-based 1993 epic The Puppetmaster than with many of his other films. Yes, the fact that Suzanne is a puppet-show writer helping to put on a production of an old Chinese tale is a detail that would surely set off auteurist alarm bells for Hou fans—but the comparisons run deeper than surface resemblances. The Puppetmaster concerned itself with the way people like its protagonist, Li Tien-lu—artists without particular political sympathies who nevertheless get caught up in the inexorable sweep of history and politics—dealt with the past and the present. Flight, obviously, isn’t as broad in scope as The Puppetmaster, but in many ways it broaches a comparable subject in less political terms. Hou’s interest here is in how human beings, all of whom happen to have artistic interests, handle the harsh realities of ordinary life.
Not that art is made incidental in either film. We see glimpses of both Li Tien-lu and Suzanne in the midst of artistic creation—in both cases, the camera observes them as they put on puppet shows in their own ways. For Suzanne, maybe even more than for Li Tien-lu, art is both a temporary escape hatch from real life and a vehicle for dealing with its challenges. Suzanne’s puppet show is a fitting metaphor for her own life at the moment: it concerns a scholar who tries to save a loved one by boiling away all the water in the sea, just as she is trying to be a good parent to her son even with an absent father and rent yet to be paid/received.
Flight can also be seen as an act of (mild) self-reflexivity—it deliberately mixes realism with an awareness of the medium Hou is working in. Self-reflexivity, at least in the Godardian sense of abrasively reminding you of the essential non-reality of the movie image, isn’t something Hou is most immediately known for in his films, but remember that The Puppetmaster also played with both history and artistic representation of the past in the way its onscreen events didn’t always match what Li Tien-lu subsequently described in front of the camera. That kind of formal play isn’t nearly as evident in Flight, but Hou is still just as interested here in how modern-day people channel their perceived realities and personal histories through their art.
And then there is his formal technique. Personally, I find it rather remarkable how fresh Hou’s stylistic trademarks remain after so many years, even as his thematic concerns more or less remain the same. He shoots whole scenes with a camera simply observing and panning between characters; he frames people via doorways in suggestive ways (in one shot, one of Suzanne’s neighbors is seen in a kitchen in the background while, in the foreground on the right side of the frame, Suzanne sits on a table, agonized by what she thinks the neighbor is doing. The framing suggests a thought bubble from Suzanne’s head). Hou lets scenes play out even as characters go in and out of view to evoke temporal moments of activity or stasis. If sometimes Hou’s technique has seemed too formalistic and distant for its own good, when he is deeply engaged in his material—as I feel he is in Flight of the Red Balloon—the formalism disappears and the warmth of life remains, pure and unadulterated.
Life, and also moments of indelible visual and aural poetry: a sunrise reflected through a train window, for instance; a piano-tuning session that becomes and unexpectedly lyrical counterpoint to the mundane goings-on in Suzanne’s apartment; or, most memorably, the ethereal shots of the red balloon flying above the city, without a care in the world—very much unlike the adults on the ground.
There is probably a lot more to this rich film that I haven’t touched upon, so I’ll leave it to others to experience and elucidate for themselves. For now, to express what this film has meant to me in the couple of weeks since I viewed it, I return back to Suzanne’s words at the beginning of this review. Yes indeed, I am daring to get personal on you all, but because Hou Hsiao-hsien has always been interested in how the political becomes personal, and vice versa, I figure it won’t be wholly inappropriate.
I think I saw Flight of the Red Balloon at exactly the right moment. The week up to the point I saw the movie at a press screening had been oddly depressing: unwelcome challenges popped up unexpectedly, all of which led me to feel as if I was going nowhere in my life, and headed to nowhere particularly special or exciting. I myself was starting to feel like I was in a rut. This movie changed all that in one fell swoop—not just because it is graced with ravishing imagery, bountiful human warmth and wonderful performances (Binoche is absolutely amazing, by the way), but because I see in the film a message exceedingly simple, yet profoundly moving: that life, for all its adversities, is still worth living for those fleeting moments of pleasure one experiences every day—in a small conversation, in a beautiful image glimpsed, etc.
That’s what I see in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s red balloon, as well as in the famous Félix Vallotton painting “The Balloon”, seen at a museum in one of the film’s concluding images: characters always searching for something, be it meaning, stability, satisfaction, or just some money to survive for a day. For some, there is also the promise of art that will help make sense of life, or at least help to hold some of its challenges at bay. As someone who tries to write fairly regularly about films and how they affect me both intellectually and emotionally, I can’t help but find Flight of the Red Balloon reinvigorating—both for my love of and fascination with cinema, as well as for life itself. What more could one want from a movie?
House contributor Kenji Fujishima is a Rutgers University journalism graduate who is currently earning his keep at The Wall Street Journal’s monitor desk in South Brunswick, N.J., while messing around on the side. He maintains—poorly—a blog named My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second. Feel free to check it out.