Monday, October 08, 2007

The 45th New York Film Festival: Flight of the Red Balloon

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

From at least his 1996 Goodbye South, Goodbye onward, nearly all of director Hou Hsiao-hsien's films have relied upon a single, structuring motif to shape the relatively classical narrative content in the image of each film's thematic specificity. For the aforesaid, it was the repeated compositions moored to the forward progress of the film's ubiquitous trains that allegorized the transformations in the director's Taiwanese homeland. In his follow-up, 1998's Flowers of Shanghai (which in the opinion of this writer remains among the director's supreme masterpieces and continues to be his finest work in this most recent phase of Hou's career), the stupor created by the opium consumption partaken in frequently within the film's opium den settings, is transferred onto languid camera work that is Flowers of Shanghai's most conspicuous artistic feature. 2001's Millennium Mambo finds inspiration in the picture's pulsating techno soundtrack, transforming the musical looping into the relatively static lives of its young protagonists. (A break in soundtrack and setting naturally accompany a similar development on the level of plot.) With 2003's Café Lumière, literally "Coffee Time," Hou structures his narratives around the interstitial moments that are referred to in the film's Japanese title. In other words, Café Lumière, a tribute to director Yasujiro Ozu on the occasion of his centenary, is comprised, appropriately, of a series of "pillow shots."

The one exception to this rule would seem to be 2005's Three Times, a portmanteau collage of two lovers in three separate eras, which serves to refract three discrete time periods utilized by Hou in a series of his previous works. In other words, whereas the above motifs become points of reference for the films that contain them, Three Times's meaning is in part generated by its connection to his prior work - as well in the simple comparisons that each segment facilitates.

Hou Hsiao-hsien's latest, Flight of the Red Balloon (Le Voyage du ballon rouge), from a screenplay by the director and François Margolin, fits squarely within the trajectory charted above. In its case, the structuring point(s) of departure become the factuality of its adaptation of Albert Lamorisse's 1956 short The Red Balloon, and its inclusion of a second adaptation within the film, by a young Chinese filmmaker Song (Fang Song). That is, the film adaptation of The Red Balloon - both in its textual specificity and also for its role in the process it describes - each become as important to the narrative structure and thematic preoccupations of Flight of the Red Balloon as is the opium use in Flowers of Shanghai or the techno in Millennium Mambo.

Song, in collaboration with the child for whom she nannies - he acts in her film and on occasion shoots footage on her camera (and even initiates a flashback in Hou's picture with the beginning of an anecdote, which in a fashion typical for the director requires some duration before the time of the event is situated; for reference, this motif is taking to its furthest limits in his 1989 A City of Sadness) - creates her own version of The Red Balloon. In fact, we see a segment of her DV production on her computer screen, appropriately sustaining the same long-take aesthetic that Hou's 35mm work similarly utilizes. (A third format, 8mm, appears with the presentation of home video footage.) As such, Song emerges readily as a double for the filmmaker, even being lauded for the abstract quality of her filmmaking. While in this way it might be tempting, therefore, to read the entirety of Flight of the Red Balloon as the film Song produces, Hou characteristically delimits between film and the meta-films, sustaining the classical, diegetic world that his film constructs. In comparison to say Michael Haneke's 2005 Caché, the status of the world he creates is never in dispute, even if it is possible to read it according to its self-reflexive matrix.

That Flight of the Red Balloon goes behind the scenes of its filmmaking process is further referred to in a couple of separate details, among others. The first occurs when the child Simon's (Simon Iteanu) mother Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) asks about a person in a green suit - the balloon wrangler, so to speak - who assists during Song's shoot. The latter notes that his costume allows for easy computer erasure of the figure in post-production, thereby demystifying not only her own shoot, but Hou's film as well. The second emerges in Suzanne's related vocation as a voice actor for the experimental puppet theatre. Hou's mobile camera allows for our seemless transportation from the role of theatre spectator to glimpses of the back stage. Consequently, Binoche's role as actress - for the puppet theatre and in Flight of the Red Balloon - is disclosed, again completely within the world of the director's fictional world.

Moreover, the introduction of this particular art into Flight of the Red Balloon reaffirms the work's connection to Hou's earlier corpus - and particularly to 1993's The Puppetmaster - as well as its theme of remaking of culture artifacts, be it the Chinese puppet theatre or The Red Balloon itself. With the respect to the former, we might be able to see Flight of the Red Balloon as a continuation of Three Times's corpus-based rhetoric, and of Café Lumière's highlighting of the process of filmmaking (in the case of the 2003 work, of the soundtrack). Perhaps then we are in a new phase (or even sub-phase) of Hou's work that is particularly calibrated toward an awareness of the director's art.

This awareness of the work's construction, disclosed within a coherent narrative universe, likewise finds form in Flight of the Red Balloon's manipulation of its soundtrack. In particular, with the emphasis that is placed on Simon's piano lessons, it becomes evident that the film's piano score relays the child's rather melancholic disposition. This externalization of the internal is similarly picked up in the film's frequent utilizations of windows to reflect what is both outside a space and inside it at the same time. This duality, be it again on the soundtrack or even in Hou's characterization of the manic Suzanne and her harrowing close-ups stands at the core of the work.

Returning for the moment to Hou's use of the soundtrack, one particularly revealing passage occurs with the arrival of a blind piano tuner at Suzanne and Simon's apartment. As he commences to tune the instrument, a job which is reproduced in real-time by the director, again with one of the film's systematic long takes, Hou alternately moves his camera to show and then conceal Simon playing his PlayStation, talking on the phone with his sister and Suzannne arguing with her neighbors in the hallway and then inside the threshold of her apartment. Over the course of this passage, the tuning itself becomes a discordant, non-diegetic soundtrack within a sequence where all becomes sound - again with the appearance of the blind piano tuner. Hou's consistently moving camera perfectly facilitates the thematic logic of the scene.

Yet, it is less in this scene than in the director's aerial follows of the eponymous object that his form becomes most conspicuous. Like in Abbas Kiarostami's Close-up (1990), where we follow a kicked can for quite an extended duration down a small slope, here we are forever following the aleatory drift - and on other occasions, seemingly intentional movements - of the red balloon. With respect to the more directed drifting of the object, it often appears through those windows, both in and out of view, that are closest to the young protagonist. As such, it soon becomes evident, when we consider his implorations of the object at the film's opening to allow itself to be caught, that the balloon itself serves as a symbol, however obliquely, of a happiness that the child doesn't quite attain.

To back up, Simon lives alone with his mother - his father has left the family and is living in Montreal - in a flat with echoes of the living quarters of The 400 Blows. In this latest incarnation of Truffaut's classic, the young male lead no longer has a step-father, but only a neurotic mother who commonly leaves him with his nanny. Simon is himself a brooding child, who, when asked late in a film whether a painting of another red balloon is either happy or sad, intuitively affirms that it is both. So is his life, elevated by the diversions that fill his days with Song or better yet his pinball played with his absent older sister, but still defined by these absences and the instability of his beloved mother. Indeed, Simon never does retrieve his balloon, which importantly floats over the Paris cityscape in the film's concluding passage, thus making universal the mixture of joys and sadnesses that the child himself professes. To be sure, Hou's particular, rather existential worldview - among other works, it is prominent in such absolute masterpieces of Hou's as The Time to Live and the Time to Die (1985) and A City of Sadness - is once again displayed in Flight of the Red Balloon: happiness is ultimately allusive, finally, though mercifully for the film's child-lead, there are moments of happiness. Surely there are these as well for Suzanne - both in her motherhood and in her art - that salve her otherwise chaotic existence.

To close, what remains to be said, beyond words of praise for Pin Bing Lee's sumptuous 35mm cinematography, and for the performances - especially Binoche's truly rich portrayal - is simply that Hou has made his finest film of this current decade, and the single best film of 2007. If anything bests the master's latest in the final three months of the year, we will be truly fortunate indeed.


Anonymous said...

Hi Michael,
I enjoyed reading your account of Hou's "Flight of the Red Ballon". I am a fan of his work, although I have not seen this one yet. My favourite Hou is still probably "The Time to Live and the Time to Die". I'm also very fond of "Three Times.
By the way, I had a look at your Top Ten films by decade. I am pleased to see you include some of my favourite films. For example Rossellini's "Stromboli" "The Messiah" and "Age of the Medici". They are all great films, and a pity that they are not better known. Rossellini is one of my favourite directors.
I see that you are also a devotee of Proust. I have been reading him for years. Do you still read his work?

Michael J. Anderson said...

Unfortunately, I am in the midst of a Proust dry spell, which may not end anytime soon, given the reading lists for my PhD course work and the comp exams which loom in the not-to-distant future.

Also, Rossellini certainly does deserve greater recognition, particularly for just those films you cite. His place in the history of realist aesthetics is a given, but his stature as one of the medium's true greats is rarely acknowledged, it seems to me. Gilbert Adair, in an essay on ROME OPEN CITY, says something similiar.

Anonymous said...

Other favourite Rossellini films would include "Era notte a Roma" and "Europe'51"
I was a bit disappointed to note the absence of two of my favourite Ozu films in your top ten by decade. I refer to "End of Summer" and "Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice". On the other hand, I was pleased to see Ford's "Wagonmaster" included in the top ten for 1950. In my opinion that film is perhaps his best. It is certainly my favourite Ford movie.
Nice to see Aki Kaurismaki's "Ariel" included in your list for 1988. I love his work. Another film I would have to include in any top ten for that same year would be Mike Leigh's wonderful "High Hopes".
Good luck with your exams, Michael.

Anonymous said...

I just realised that I forgot to mention one of the loveliest and most meaningful films ever made: Rossellini's "Francesco, guillare di Dio".


Michael E. Kerpan Jr. said...

Thanks for the lovely piece on Hou's latest (not yet seen -- or even promised -- in Boston) film.

As of now, my top HHH favorites are Dust in the Wind and Millennium Mambo (with many other titles not far behind).