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Hou Hsiao-hsien's
Flight of the Red Balloon

An online exclusive review

(IFC Films)

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Flight of the Red Balloon
Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien
(IFC)

Reviewed by Patrick Z. McGavin

Paris conjures for the outsider a labyrinth of desire made complicit by the exquisite soft summer light. It is part of the enduring fascination and sublime mystery of how the most sophisticated and elaborately suggestive of cities intuitively gives rise to the most solitary of habits and inclinations.

The sense of rebirth — artistic, cultural, sexual — is central to a number of imposing works by foreign directors who have set their films there, from Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset to Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s Night and Day (my favorite competition film at Berlin). Those movies, loose and spontaneous, observant and heartbreaking, are beautiful and hypnotic and transmute a reverie of love and possibility. Neither work eliminates or brushes off the darker consequences of art, sex or romantic longing.

In his enthralling Flight of the Red Balloon, the Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien draws on that very specific and emotionally precise geography of light and space to reconsider his own art. The personal reflection allows Hou to enlarge and deepen his work by adding a volatile, moody emotional intensity. He was commissioned by the Musee d’Orsay to remake the 1956 Albert Lamorisse short feature The Red Balloon.

Magnificently shot by Mark Lee Ping Bing (2046), the film opens with a transcendent image: a moody and gorgeous contrast of the ecstatic red object floating against a diaphanous Paris skyline. Flight or movement is the movie’s ruling metaphor. Ever since Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996), Hou has developed his stories, the charged or direct encounters of his characters, in the interiors of cars or captured from the thrilling subjectivity of a character riding on a motorcycle. Hou’s Café Lumiere (2004), the director’s beautiful homage to the centenary of Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu and the only other of his films made outside of Taiwan, opens with a shot of the exterior of a train.

The title object is both free and unmoored. Hou grounds the imagery emotionally in the physical presence of Simon (Simon Iteanu), the cheery and impulsive seven-year-old to whom that balloon appears magnetically attached. The red balloon’s flow and unpredictability is also crucial to the elliptical and fractured storytelling. The boy lives with his mother, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), an actress and the director of a children’s puppet theater, in a cramped, book lined bohemian apartment. Simon’s new caretaker, Song (Song Fang), is a Taiwanese film student currently completing her own experimental version of the Lamorisse film.

Hou apparently just wrote scenes, or moments, and let his actors improvise and contribute their own dialogue. The movie is basically plotless, and the work achieves an incredible freedom and liberation without ever sacrificing the director’s trademark formal rigor and visual elegance. Beginning with Millennium Mambo (2001), Hou has become more stylistically adventurous and open with his camera. The shots are more fluid and mobile, and the camera is more expressive and alert to the inflections and physical distinctions of his actors’ bodies.

Flight of the Red Balloon is filled with tremulous, poetic moments, like the dappled exterior light refracted through the glass pane as a train passes an idyllic French landscape. The quiet and still moments sharply play off the film’s rambunctious and impudent energy. Hou acknowledges a brand of steely professionalism and artistry, like two workers tasked with a seemingly impossible task of moving Suzanne’s piano. Or the blind piano tuner who is caught in the vortex of her increasingly outrageous family dynamics, whether dealing with her intransigent tenant or connect with an unseen daughter who herself is an expatriate.

Hou works in a recognizable idiom, but explores subtle changes from his Chinese work. Likewise, the French-language Three Colors trilogy of director Krzysztof Kieslowski emphatically shifted location from his Polish work, though the interior actions and thematic concerns of chance, fate and circumstance remained intact and imaginatively colored not by the vicissitudes of Eastern bloc communism. The social and political rupture conveyed an entirely different sense of physical dislocation. Hou’s movie has a heightened subjectivity eerily similar to Kieslowski. The point is brought home in one of the film’s most impressive images: Simon and his classmates riding a carousel, the passage rendered in a close up of the children lunging for a ring.

Binoche is also a thread of the two directors. In Kieslowski’s Blue (1993), she played a widow whose self-determination and renewal erases all evidence of grief and loneliness. At the start of her career, as in her breakthrough part in Andre Techine’s Rendez-vous, Binoche was severe and mannered. Her sexuality itself was intensely forbidding. Her coldness belied a tremendous technical sophistication. She was also a risk-taker, an actress wholly unafraid to use her body in mapping out an extraordinarily tense and wounded vulnerability.

As impressive as she was early in her career, at this point her work is absolutely magnificent. Her body has changed, becoming fuller and even more sexually alluring. Binoche said her work in the film was inspired by Gena Rowlands’ extraordinary performance in John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence. (Binoche even takes on her look, down to the peroxide blonde hair.) In that film, Rowlands’ Mabel tended to crush and suffocate everybody around her. Binoche’s Suzanne is both freer floating and more distracted. The movie makes sublime one of the central tenets of the Cassavetes’ films, which is that we are all actors, and the particularly tension or volatility derives from the extent that the characters openly challenge or try to repudiate their essential being.

A work that originated as homage is transformed, by a great director, into a thrilling and personal form of history and autobiography that references the director’s masterpiece The Puppetmaster (1993), yet Hou is generous and varied enough to consider a wholly different manner of performance. It takes the ineffable and makes it concrete and visible.

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