Hou Hsiao-hsien may be the most fearless, sophisticated, and brilliant filmmaker of the last 30 years. He's fearless because after establishing his presence with a string of late 80s/early 90s masterpieces he consciously diverted from the stylistic formalism that he had cultivated and has been changing and experimenting with each new release ever since. His sophistication lies in his complete mastery of each new style: his poetic, haiku-like images and editing, his superficial minimalism that reveals incredibly rich aesthetic and thematic depths, his ability to synthesize some of the finest quality from the best Asian directors (notably Ozu and Mizoguchi). Finally, he's brilliant because he has been able to invite comparison to these masters and hold up well (sometimes even better) under scrutiny.
His daring, sophistication, and brilliance has been especially proven in two of his 21st century films, Café Lumiere and Flight of the Red Balloon. Both found Hou in foreign countries (in the former Japan, and in the latter France) making films dedicated to a master (Ozu in Lumiere) and an enduring masterpiece (Lamorisse's Red Balloon). Both films display the tremendous versatility of Hou, and his ability to take something familiar, like Ozu's deceptively simple formalism or the touching premise of Lamorisse's fable of childhood and innocence, and elaborate on them with his own vision, and enrich them with his artistry.
In the original Red Balloon, a young boy named Pascal discovers a sentient red balloon that takes to following him about his everyday life. Everyone takes notice of this phenomenon, such as the local boys who take to tragically destroying the balloon in front of Pascal. But the film ends with a transcendental uplift as a cadre of balloons appear to lift up Pascal and take him away to who-knows-where. The film has always been taken as being a whimsical, poignant fable of childhood and innocence, perhaps both lost and redeemed.
Hou's re-envisioning of the original Red Balloon loosely keeps its basic premise, but sets it in a more naturalistic, ephemeral, and elusive key. Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) is a single mother who works as a puppeteer voice at a local theater. She is also sub-letting her apartment to a couple who appear to be friends of her ex-husband. Because of her busy schedule she hires a babysitter named Fang Song (Fang Song: Yes, the actress' name is the same) to watch her young son Simon (Simon Iteanu) during the day. Song is a Chinese films student who happens to be shooting a remake of The Red Balloon, and decides to use Simon as the boy in the film.
For the first time since his breakthrough masterpiece A City of Sadness, Hou has turned his camera squarely upon a family. While his films post-City have featured families the focus has usually been on individuals within them. But unlike the sprawling focus of City, Flight keeps up with Hou's post-Puppetmaster chamber drama trend which reduces his cast to an intimate few. Flight's focus is extremely balanced, giving equal time and attention to Suzanne, Simon, Song and the interconnected relationships between them.
This intimate setting allows his cast to shine, and shine they do. I've often thought Juliette Binoche was the most under-rated actress of her generation, and here she gives an extraordinary performance as Suzanne. A completely "normal" character if ever there was, Suzanne is utterly relatable; she's a woman who finds herself always rushed, always under pressure from multiple sides, from dealing with her tenants to taking care of her son to keeping in touch with her daughter who's away to supporting her family without the help of a husband. Like most of us, the everyday struggles wear away it her, and what we see is a woman breaking down but striving endlessly to hold it all together. In true Hou fashion, Binoche communicates this through minimal gestures, so we're never actively aware of her breakdown as we're watching it.
Song and Simon are a different story entirely. With his youth and innocence, Simon exists in a world all his own, one of games (pinball, video), music (his piano lessons) and school. Simon Iteanu is utterly believable in the role and thanks to Hou's good sense of taste he never comes off as a fake or precocious child star. Fang Song (the character) strikes a balance between Simon's carefree innocence and Suzanne's reality frazzled self. She's able to sympathize with Suzanne and yet still relate with Simon. As an actress, Song plays the character almost like a blank slate and observer, which is utterly appropriate when one considers Song is an obvious analog to Hou himself.
Enough also can't be said about the stunning cinematography of Mark Lee Ping-Bing, who is right there with Roger Deakins as the best of the modern cinematographers. Mark Lee seems to share more in common with one of the old masters, Vittorio Storaro, in his mastery of color and light. All of Hou's modern films have used light, color, and compositions in interesting ways and Mark Lee has showed his ability to shift from the deep, neon-blues of Millennium Mambo, to the organic naturalism of Cafe Lumiere, to the Barry Lyndon-esque lantern-lit interiors of Flowers of Shanghai. One should also applaud the graceful movements which achieves an almost Mizoguchi-like elegance despite usually being hand-held.
Flight is Hou's most reflexive film, literally. Shots of reflective glass abound in the film, sometimes shooting through to the other side, sometimes merely shooting the reflections. In one of the film's most extraordinarily beautiful shots, Hou captures the sunset through the windows of the train as trees pass in front of it, essentially reflecting two sunsets that periodically pierce through the throng. This is one of the many scenes accompanied by the haunting, lyrical solo piano piece which lends the film much of its elegiac, poetic aesthetic quality.
It's also Hou's most self-reflexive and metafictional film. The fact that Suzanne is a puppeteer voice harkens back to The Puppetmaster. The fact that Song is shooting a remake of The Red Balloon self-consciously alludes to Hou's own remake in progress. Just like Hou takes us behind the scenes of the puppet show, likewise does he take us behind the making of Flight when Song reveals to Suzanne that she uses a man dressed in green to hold the balloon so he can be erased digitally. More subtly, Hou's profusive gold and red color scheme reminds one of Flowers of Shanghai, while the intimate, cramped spaces of the apartment in contrast to the large, outdoor spaces remind one of Millennium Mambo or Café Lumiere.
Flight is one of Hou's most particularly brilliant uses of color. Besides the magnificent use of natural light (usually golden-tinged indoors shot with angles, diffused sunlight), red and green both act as a symbolic motif. Green and red are unique choices as they are contrasting colors in which the former recedes and the later advances (in photographic color theory). Obviously, the red echoes that of the balloon, and a symbol of childhood innocence and fantasy it crops up tellingly throughout, such as the door that leads to Suzanne's puppet show and frequently in the apartment. The green seems to symbolize the congestion and frustration of adulthood and modern culture. The first time we see the balloon it becomes caught in a tree and then obscured by the leaves and branches. Later, when the balloon tries to join Simon on a train (which is also painted green) it's knocked aside by the train's arrival into the station. It stands at the door as Simon seems to be swallowed by the masses inside, almost as if the balloon is trying to save him from the inevitable fate of growing up.
Elsewhere, Hou seems to edit playfully around this. In one scene, Simon and Song stand outside a café and a traffic light is visible nearby on green. On red, the two enter inside where Simon begins to play pinball, and when the light changes again, Hou quickly edits to inside the building. These rhythmic nuances are prolific in the film and accentuate its free-flowing, baloon-like floating, jazzy rhythms. In one of the lighter instances, Simon is playing with Song's digital camcorder inside the apartment, filming her making pancakes, and when he says "there's nothing else to film" Hou quickly cuts.
Elsewhere, Hou's ellipses are more thematically and emotionally relevant, such as when a scene with Simon telling Song about his sister whom he never sees. Hou cuts to a long shot of Simon standing on a bridge with a woman we can't see, and as Simon's voiceover continues, they walk towards camera, revealing the girl to be, presumably, his sister. This memory will appear again later with Simon, his sister, and Suzanne inside their old house as a loving, happy family.
Joining Hou's artistic mastery of time and color is his mastery of composition, space, and sound. The film begins, like many Hou's, of sound occurring over a credit screen. Here, what we hear first is the traffic of a French city street as Simon stands upon a lamp near a subway, attempting to coax the red balloon (that isn't shown) to come down. Hou continues his visual suggestion of the suffocating modernism of the city by shooting through crowds of people that fill the frame. This congestion is echoed by the messiness of Suzanne's apartment. Flight essentially joins Hou's filmography from Goodbye South onward as being an expression of his distaste for unnatural modernity.
But all of Hou's artistry comes together in the film's overarching theme of the innocence, freedom, openness, and imagination of childhood versus the soul-crushing drudgery of adulthood. Suzanne and Simon are contrasts in every possible way, but Hou's magic is his ability to find to moderation between the two, that moderation is art and, in particular, film. Song is literally the link between Suzanne and Simon in the film's fictional world, just like Hou is in his behind-the-scenes direction and orchestration.
All three are engaged in some artistic endeavor and at different levels: Simon is learning piano, but is only able to perform scales. Song is recently out of film-school and is making student films on her cheap, digital camera. Suzanne is a professional, making a living performing voices for puppets. In one telling scene, Suzanne reveals to Song how her film (appropriately titled "origins") brought her back to her youth and all its vivid memories, things she reveals that "I thought I had forgot about".
The same way that art can mediate age, it can also mediate culture. In another scene, Song acts a translator for Suzanne and an elderly Asian puppet master where Suzanne gives him a post-card she received in China. This is almost like an in-film communication between Hou's Asia and Suzanne's France, where the former is filming and depicting the latter, and the latter is attempting to find a common ground.
But if art can mediate ages it can't synthesize them into one. It seems the only time Suzanne is happy is when she is performing her art. Everywhere else, the troubles of reality invade her life. In one of the film's most poignant scenes, Suzanne breaks down crying after a hostile encounter with her neighbor whom she's trying to evict, and after a call with her daughter who might not be coming to stay. She rushes towards Simon, hugging him and talking to him about how he's doing. Here we can literally feel her attempting to grasp and recapture some spirit of childhood that's long gone.
Appropriately, Hou saves his finest magic trick for the end where Simon and a group of schoolchildren visit a museum to see Felix Vallotton's original Red Balloon painting. Suddenly, the film's mostifs seem to synthesize immediately (even if subtly and imperceptivity): the child in the light foreground chasing the balloon, the adults in the shadowed background, the green of trees allowing the red of the balloon to pop out by contras. We finally see that Hou has all along been replicating this painting in the form of the moving images; dramatizing it, and adding poetic visual and rhythmic layers elaborating on the theme.
Hou is one of those directors from whom every film seems like an invaluable gift from your best friend, and in an oeuvre full of brilliant masterpieces, Flight of the Red Balloon is one of his most impressive. It's a remarkable achievement for a director who came to prominence more than 20 years ago. It's a film that's both utterly like and yet quite unlike anything else Hou is done. It has the same cinematic sophistication, the same minimalism, the same aesthetic sublimity, and the same stylistic complexity, but it feels like it's in an entirely different mode. Flight is one of Hou's most ephemeral, rich, poetic, elegiac, magical, and even uplifting films. It's one of those films to get lost in: lost in its impressionistic sensuousness, like staring at a Monet painting or reading a Yeats poem, lost in its wistfulness that, like the kids say of the painting, is a both a bit happy and a bit sad. It's one of those films that leaves me with a deep sense of peace, and an even greater sense of wonder. It's a magic trick by one of cinema's most talented magicians and, what's all the more remarkable, is that even after I figure out the trick my sense of wonder seems to enrichen and deepen rather than dissipate. It's just such a shame that so few in the west seem to appreciate that poetic magic.