The twenty best films of this decade were determined by polling all the major and continuing contributors to Reverse Shot in the publication's history.
Leo Goldsmith on Flight of the Red Balloon
Somewhere in the middle of Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon, the film’s protagonist, Suzanne, is sharing a quiet train carriage with her son’s Taiwanese nanny, Song, and the puppet master Ah Zhong, who has just given a lecture on Chinese puppetry techniques. Suzanne, who has been gazing out of the window absently, suddenly pulls a postcard from her scrapbook. It’s a gift, she tells Song to translate to Ah Zhong, an image of something she saw at the British Museum in London when she was working there as a nanny. It is deeply personal to her, she explains, but also something she feels is quintessentially Chinese—“la Chine profonde”—and so she feels Master Ah Zhong should have it.
This scene is a typically offhanded moment for Hou—his films nearly always pile minute, equivocal sketches into unexpectedly rich compositions of everyday life. Like his best films, Flight of the Red Balloon has many such scenes—a flashback to a child's day out with his sister, a non sequitur story about a piano mover’s injury and rehabilitation, a minor disagreement about the use of a kitchen. In any other film, a French woman telling a Chinese character through a Chinese translator what she believes is quintessentially Chinese would stick out like a sore thumb, likely as an outright indictment of the French woman's blinkered provinciality. But as usual, Hou is after something far subtler, a simple marker of the intersection of East and West that calls attention to the dovetailing processes of translation and adaptation in which the characters are involved. Just as Hou's film, the Taiwanese director's first wholly European production, is a pseudo-remake of Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 film The Red Balloon, which Song is also adapting as a student film, Suzanne is engaged in an adaptation, a translation to puppet theater of the traditional Chinese story of Zhang Yu, who tries to reach his lover across the sea by boiling it away. In his essay, “The Task of the Translator,” Walter Benjamin remarked, “Languages are not strangers to one another, but are, a priori and apart from all historical relationships, interrelated in what they want to express.” Flight of the Red Balloon embodies this concept, seeking different ways—languages, cultures, artistic media—through which to express the same emotions and themes of contemporary life Hou’s been exploring all along.
For many Western critics, Hou's act of cultural translation comes up short. The charge that crops up most frequently in negative reviews of the film—other than that it is “boring,” a common descriptor for any Hou film—is that it is “touristy.” Hou “brings a tourist's sentimental eye to bear on Paris,” claims Richard Brody of the New Yorker, which is to say that the film too clearly represents the perspective of one regarding a culture foreign to him without the clarity or depth of engagement of one native to that culture. (Interestingly, Charles Mudede of Seattle's The Stranger applies the term as a compliment, and Kurt Loder—yes, that Kurt Loder, writing for MTV.com—complains that the film isn't touristy enough.) It can’t have helped that Hou's film was released in New York within a month of a much higher-profile Western art-film by a Chinese director, Wong Kar-wai's My Blueberry Nights. Wong's film is intended as a much more immersive experience than Hou's—it represents a direct translation (or transposition) of situations common to Wong's films into an American setting and idiom—but negative appraisals of both films were similar, suggesting that each filmmaker was not just out of his element, but out of his depth. The films of these directors, to some, simply didn't work outside of their native contexts; they don't understand the West as they do Taiwan or Hong Kong. Something had been lost in the translation, if it was ever really there at all.
Of course, this decade was not going to be an easy one for Hou Hsiao-hsien from the start. Being named the Director of the Nineties in a critics' poll conducted by the Village Voice and Film Comment just before the turn of the millennium would be a blessing and a curse for any filmmaker, but in this case the critics seem to have conferred the title as a rallying cry as much as an honorific. Writing in Film Comment in 1999, Kent Jones defied those who might find Hou's films too rarefied, too arty, too “difficult.” (The scare-quotes are Jones's.) Naturally, Jones understands, “no matter how deep an affinity Westerners develop for Eastern culture, the moment always arrives when the conceptually unfamiliar impedes the flow of pleasure, and the bridge to ‘universal meaning’ must be crossed with intellectual effort.” Even if his films “require a bit of brainwork from the viewer” or don’t conform to “Western standards,” it nonetheless behooved the viewer to make that effort.
Jones spins this difficulty as a problem of the Occident regarding the Orient, of Western audiences and critics recoiling at the apparent impenetrability of an Asian artist. But in spite of the inspirations Hou has professed to draw from traditions in Chinese ink-painting, the challenging poetics of his films are not purely “Eastern” ones, “la Chine profonde.” Indeed, the narrative opacity that Jones finds in his films is as much a European as an Asian one, self-conscious difficulty being something that filmmakers and critics all over the world adore, often or especially when other viewers do not. So much for films that don’t conform to “Western standards”: by Jones’s rationale, Hou's purported Asianness might have made him a success at home and a mere curiosity abroad, but it’s rather more the opposite. “I have 20,000 viewers in Taiwan, and 200,000 in Paris,” Hou said in 1999.
In his native country, Hou had divided audiences and critics throughout the Eighties with his increasingly open-ended ways of telling stories and addressing issues of Taiwanese identity. He gained critical and popular success both locally and abroad with City of Sadness, his groundbreaking 1989 film about the “White Terror” and the February 28 Incident, but many Taiwanese critics still complained about his indirect handling of this important and never-before-filmed moment in the island nation's history. And the films that immediately followed it, a trilogy addressing Taiwanese history with a still greater emphasis on the act of history-telling itself, solidified the perception of Hou as a difficult art-film director: an international auteur, not an essentially Taiwanese or Asian filmmaker, much less a commercial one. 1993's The Puppetmaster and 1995's Good Men, Good Women are fragmentary narratives that initiate dialogues between past and present: the former interpolates historical reenactments with present-day scenes of puppet plays and interviews; the latter alternates scenes from the life of a film actress with those of the actress playing a historical figure. With 1996's Goodbye South, Goodbye and 1998's Flowers of Shanghai, Hou refocused his attention to space itself, emphasizing a cohesive spatio-temporal cinematic environment within which the spectator must find many of those same earlier themes, still challenging the spectator's attention span and capacity to retain and relate small details, privileging depth of field as much as depth of character.
Rather than typify Asian poetics, the increasingly rigorous style of these films made them ideally suited for an international art-film community, the circuit of film festivals, and the diaspora of filmmakers, critics, and industry professionals of which both Jones and Hou are a part. So it seems natural that Hou's work since the Nineties has widened his scope beyond his native country, making him a spokesman for Taiwanese cinema at home and abroad. Opening SPOT-Taipei Film House in 2002 and producing films through his company SinoMovie, Hou has been engaged in a project of cinema advocacy explicitly modeled on Wong Kar-wai's globalized art cinema, and this endeavor parallels the increasingly international reach of his films. Beginning with 2001's Millennium Mambo, his own films have been wandering too, both in their settings and in the circumstances of their production. Like Vicky in that film, Hou has drifted from contemporary Taipei to various other points in time and place, and back—escaping to rural, snowy Yubari (site of a sadly now-defunct silent film festival, no less) in Millennium Mambo, down to Tokyo in the 2003 Ozu tribute Café Lumière, and traversing three disparate eras of Taiwanese history in 2005’s Three Times.
While Café Lumière was a wholly Japanese-funded production (the Japanese have been big supporters of Hou since the mid-Eighties), Mambo and Three Times were both co-productions between Hou's 3H Productions and two French companies that had also funded Wong's 2046. Flight of the Red Balloon brings Hou fully into France, with a production paid for by Canal+ and the Musée d'Orsay. As a purported adaptation of Lamorisse's beloved children's classic starring Juliette Binoche, perhaps the single biggest French film star in the world, Hou's film might have been expected to be a full expatriation, but it's somewhat jarring to contrast the euphoric (if mildly terrifying) ending of The Red Balloon with the opening of Hou's pseudo-remake. At the climax of the original, a rainbow cluster of balloons carries aloft Lamorisse's young protagonist, swooping over the rooftops of Paris. But when we first see Hou's analogous character, he is earthbound in a sea of traffic, chasing a solitary red orb.
Lamorisse's film gently, almost wordlessly enters the interior world of young Pascal (played by the director's own son of the same name) and follows his intimate and rather lonely relationship with the titular inflatable through a crumbling, distinctly postwar Paris. In retrospect, it's easy to recognize this as more of a movie Paris than a real one, a romantic, peach-grey city of ornate lamps and wistful decomposition that invokes Marcel Proust and Gene Kelly—but it is not Hou's Paris. In place of Maurice Leroux's score, the honks and wheezes of traffic congestion accompany the opening credits of Flight of the Red Balloon, and when these end, we are plunged not into a child's interior world, but into the automotive melée around the Bastille Métro, where Hou's young protagonist, Simon (Simon Iteanu), calls out to the red balloon overhead. The effect is reminiscent of Three Times' breathtaking transition from the delicate and dialogue-free world of Dadaocheng, 1911, to the gritty, bristling urban freeway of Taipei, 2005: the spectator is pulled out of silence into a hectic and disorienting modern world. We are no longer in the movie Paris of Lamorisse, much less in a conventional tourist's Paris, but in smoggy, bustling real Paris, and the only redolence of film culture is the movie posters for the slasher-horror parody Severance and Children of Men that obtrude the frame's center. In keeping with his surroundings, Simon is shrill and precocious—not the taciturn cherub that is Lamorisse's son—attempting to bribe the balloon to be his friend until, incognizant, it drifts above the trees.
I am told that this prologue—and the young protagonist's performance, in general—is the sticking point for many francophone audiences, and part of the reason that Hou's homage, or translation, of Lamorisse's film has been received in France with little more than a nonchalant Gallic shrug. Curiously—and perhaps pointedly—this scene also seems out of step with the rest of the film, which soon matches the balloon's rhythms rather than the traffic's. Next we’re on an open-air Métro platform, and we watch quietly and at length as cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing's framing and focus intently follow the balloon's strange, jerking movements in the wind. Soon we see that Simon, no longer the anxious, grabbing child of the previous scene, is also patiently watching these movements. And though he's in nearly every other scene in the film that follows, Simon is thenceforth only an observer, receding largely into the background. He shyly answers the questions of his nanny Song (Fang Song), fiddles with her video camera, dashes off to his bedroom for a nap, or plays with his Xbox, but his early precocity remains absent in the rest of the film, and afterwards he seems, as he does to Song, “gentle.”
As Simon recedes slightly into the background, protected from the anxiety and disorder around him as in a kind of bubble of maternal care created by Song, his mother, Suzanne, negotiates the trials of single-motherhood and what she calls the general complexity of adult life. Played by Binoche with frazzled, bleached hair, an eclectic wardrobe (jeans and a skirt), and mounting frustration, Suzanne is a heroine like others in Hou's work since the Nineties. Similar to Vicky in Millennium Mambo and Yoko in Café Lumière, she leads a somewhat sophisticated urban life that's nonetheless marked by a niggling, low-level chaos, the messiness of relationships and responsibilities and busy schedules. Each of these films is about modern love in the modern city, an attempt to map the sanctuaries of tenderness within an indifferent urban landscape (literalized in Café Lumière by Yoko’s friend Hajime’s computer graphic of a womblike network of Tokyo train lines and cars). It's no accident that the protagonists of these films are all women: Vicky, a teenager beginning to wise up; Yoko, a young single woman soon to be a mother; Suzanne, a single mom trying to maintain a semblance of order around her son.
The role of protector, or keeper of the peace for Simon, falls to Song. As an outsider, an observer, a tourist, she also serves as an educator and especially a mediator—both between cultures, as a translator, and within the structure of Suzanne's family. She connects mother and son, and functions as a sympathetic surrogate—getting his snack, taking him to play pinball, involving him in her film. (I suspect this is in fact what the film's prologue is—a scene from Song's film, not Hou's—which might account for its slightly off-key rhythm in contrast to the rest of the film.) Hou does not show us the precise way in which Song involves him in her film, but as we see Simon toying with Song's camera we sense that it too has become part of his secret world, one nurtured and enclosed by various mother figures (Suzanne; Song; Anna, the piano teacher; Louise, the “pretend sister”).
By this logic, and if we are to follow the symbolism of Lamorisse's film, the red balloon might represent companionship, a partner to the boy's loneliness. Like Hajime's image of the railway fetus, it is itself womblike in shape, and might suggest the protective tissue formed around the young Simon, like the red-curtained main room of his mother's inviting, organically cluttered flat, (Or, indeed, the muscle in the piano mover's neck that he says saved him from catastrophic injury.) Though Simon is not the film's primary focus, Hou nonetheless expresses a deep concern for the effect of experiences on children as he does in a few of his earlier works (A Summer at Grandpa's and A Time to Live and a Time to Die, in particular). The film's more breathless and harried scenes—scenes of grown-up complexities, tiffs, and disjunctions—do not seem to weigh on Simon until the end, when he retreats into his small atelier bedroom for a nap.
But once we are given to understand that the balloon is at least partly an invention of Song for her film—Song even discusses the green-screen technology that her film uses—the balloon seems less circumscribed, less determined. As such, the red balloon is beautiful, but empty. Its movement fascinates and seduces the camera; it’s elusive in its meaning as well as its motions, and its value is only certain in its aesthetic appeal. But this value should not be underestimated. Indeed, Hou's characters pause twice—at the beginning and at the end of the film—to consider the value of beautiful things. Origins, the earlier film which Song has made, evokes for Suzanne the sounds and sensations of her childhood, conjuring emotions, revisiting the pain and confusion of growing up in a broken home, and her descriptions of these rich aural and visual impressions could easily be descriptors of Hou's own work. Later, in the Musée d'Orsay, we hear a brief lecture on Félix Vallotton's 1899 painting The Ball and the ways it suggests moods and ideas through perspective, color, composition, and depth of field, much like Hou's film does.
In between these scenes, we have many opportunities to pause and contemplate not just what is being shown, but how it is being shown—landscapes framed by the windows of a train, a performance of Suzanne's puppet shows observed from backstage and by the audience, the techniques of ancient Chinese puppetry from a native master translated and explained, moving images transferred from Super-8 to video or framed within a familiar-looking window on the desktop of Song's computer. This is cinema woven into the fabric of everyday life. It's neither French, nor Taiwanese, nor “Asian”—rather than invoking the priorities of rigid national identities, it speaks in the idiom of an international cinema, one that is not bound by national borders, markets, or ideologies. But this is not a universalist perspective that encompasses all things and people coercively and indiscriminately. Flight of the Red Balloon speaks for a small community, a provisional family. It reaches across the world, but it concerns the most intimate and immediate senses and experiences.
More on Flight of the Red Balloon from Reverse Shot.
"We Float," by Michael Koresky (Spring 2008)
Best of 2008 (Winter 2009)