A typically lyrical shot from Flight of the Red Balloon (2008), Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s enigmatic foray into European art cinema. Purportedly “based on” the short Albert Lamorisse film The Red Balloon (1956)—or so an end title informs us (the film is also dedicated to Lamorisse)—Flight is by no means a simple, child-friendly fairy tale in the manner of its source. Rather, it’s a kind of outsider’s take on a French film, Hou’s first directorial effort outside of Asia, that seems equally inspired by The 400 Blows. Hou is mirrored in the figure of Song (Song Fang), a Chinese filmmaker and student who has arrived in Paris to act as a nanny to Simon (Simon Iteanu) and who ends up bearing witness to the domestic problems of his frazzled mother, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche). Song tells Suzanne that she’s making a film about red balloons, and we occasionally see her filming Simon as part of the project. Other shots involving Simon and the balloon are more difficult to place, because (to trot out a fancy film-theory term) they’re not sutured to any particular character or context. Do they belong to Hou’s film, or to Song’s? Are they reveries? Daydreams? Is this a kind of prologue to Lamorisse’s film, one that’s leading up the moment when boy and balloon first make contact? (The two are not really companions here, as in Lamorisse; rather, the balloon seems to be watching Simon pensively, from afar.)
The ambiguity of relationships, the tenuousness of the film’s version of reality, the use of screens within screens, films within films—Flight of the Red Balloon more closely resembles the work of Abbas Kiarostami than most of Hou’s previous films, which are often concerned with the intricacies of Chinese and Taiwanese history and crowded with lush period detail. (Kiarostami himself has recently made his own teasing version of a European art film with Certified Copy, reviewed here.) Flight seems to pose more puzzling metacinematic questions. While I enjoyed Flight quite a bit, I still can’t decide whether or not it knows what it’s trying to say; it’s consistently suggestive and interesting, and Hou’s trademark long takes are put to beautiful use, but its ideas are not always clear. Juliette Binoche’s performance is the easiest thing in the film to appreciate; you want more of her. She plays the scatter-brained, easily frustrated Suzanne with a mixture of flightiness, ire, and deep love. It seems to me that with this film and Certified Copy Binoche is currently doing some of the best work of her career. She acts even when she’s not saying anything; in her pauses and silences, you can actually see her thinking. The effect is extraordinary.