The Flight of the Red Balloon, Dir: Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Now Playing at the IFC
Long recognized as one of the leading figures of New Taiwan Cinema, Hou Hsiao-Hsien has been revered as the most important living filmmaker, accused of formalist tedium, and critiqued in his native Taiwan for his controversial “observational” approach to national history.
With his most recent and first non-Asian film, The Flight of the Red Balloon (2008) Hou Hsiao-Hsien has again transcended the borders that conventionally define genre and nation. A homage to Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 cloying children’s classic The Red Balloon, Hou’s Paris is more Nouvelle Vague than nouveau kitsch. Defying any easy categorization of Hou as “quintessentially Chinese”—a label affixed both to properly contextualize him and to reassure bewildered Western audiences of his intractable cultural Otherness—Flight suggests the need for a new cinematic cartography.
A masterpiece of bobo malaise, Flight gorgeously chronicles the lives of Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), a middle-aged, neurotic puppeteer, her moppet son Simon (Simon Iteanu) and Song (Song Fang), their Chinese film student-cum-nanny. Revisiting his own abiding interest in puppetry as a theater in which life itself can be abstracted and reflected, Hou operates his own human marionettes in the chaotic flat where the characters momentarily collide before dispersing as flaneurs in the city. Paris may be a luminescent hall of mirrors in which images of red balloons abound, but interior clutter has never signified so poetically. Forsaking the feng shui of more orderly abodes, Hou discovers the vicissitudes of yearning in an incandescent apartment crampacked with mutely signifying objects. When a blind piano tuner arrives to perform his cabalistic task, all of the objects in the apartment, including its inhabitants, are brought into exquisite, if temporary, harmony. The scene becomes one of most stunning long takes (eight full minutes without a cut) in the history of cinema.
In Flight, Hou sets adrift his most obvious and most compelling symbol of perpetually unfulfilled desire. Floating through the city, momentarily gracing the film’s three protagonists with its fleeting presence, the titular red balloon describes longing and proximity. It is at once a surrogate for the observational style of the director, a perpetual foreigner who gazes without ever being let in, and a metaphor for fraught intimacy. Traveling lightly through time and space, bobbing towards and then away, and glimpsed through a glass darkly, Hou’s red balloon represents cinema itself.
From his elliptical, minimalist staging of the historical past to his meditative explorations of contemporary Taipei and now Paris, Hou has proved as keen an observer of politics as he is of quotidian reality. Indeed, it is often through the lens of the everyday that Hou approaches History. By focusing on characters who accidentally bump into historical crises, Hou explores the unremarkable, subtle transformations that occur when ordinary people are confronted with world-shattering events.
The Japanese invasion of Taiwan (1895-1945) has been grist for Hou’s mill, as has the suppression of political dissidents in the period of Nationalist tyranny known as the White Terror (1949-1987). But as anyone who has watched Hou’s films knows, history ain’t like pornography: you don’t always know it when you see it. Distracted by Hou’s roving camera, or by objects obscuring the “action” in the foreground of the frame, it’s easy to miss the elephant in the room. What is inescapable for people actually living through violent shifts of political power is almost impossible for belated viewers to see. That, of course, is the point.
To the dismay of more propaganda-minded critics, Hou’s oblique, contemplative style often frustrates any expectation of grand historical revelation. Hou made A City of Sadness (1989) after the 1987 lifting of martial law in Taiwan. City excavates the repressed 1947 “February 28 incident” in which thousands of civilians were massacred at the hands of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist army. After forty years of state censorship, critics eagerly anticipated a Spielbergesque gorefest that would sensationalize the island’s worst trauma and longest standing representational taboo.
Instead of approaching this incendiary subject as a series of explosive climaxes, Hou concentrated on its anticlimactic effects on a particular family. After learning that one of their own has been killed, the family continue about their daily routine, which is altered in ways only they know. Anti-Hou factions critiqued the director for not showing Taiwan’s “primal scene” of political violence more explicitly, and for implicitly whitewashing the sins of the Nationalist government. Foreign critics proved more appreciative. A City of Sadness won the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival, establishing Hou as a major figure in world cinema.
Hou’s triumph brought international recognition for Taiwanese cinema, thus opening the festival floodgates for directors Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-Liang. Nevertheless, Hou’s reception in his native country remains ideologically polarized. And while the publication of a 1991 anthology of essays entitled Death of the New Cinema canonized Hou in academic circles, the book attacked the director for committing cultural parricide.
Hou’s early films (Dust in the Wind (1986); A City of Sadness) were often set in the countryside and/ or the past. Since the late ’80s, Hou has alternated between mapping the historical past and the urban present, often in the same film. Hou’s brilliant The Puppetmaster (1993)—which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes—documents the life of Li Tianlu, the island’s most celebrated puppeteer and a mercurial emblem of Taiwanese identity. With an editing style modeled on the movement of clouds, Hou collapsed the rules of the conventional biopic. When Li himself nonchalantly appears halfway through the dreamlike, episodic story, suddenly giving body to the gravelly voice that has been narrating event and nonevent alike, the viewer must confront the force of the real.
Instead of unifying the film’s disparate strands of memory with the unexpected presence of the Man himself, Hou’s strategy only further distances the spectator. Resisting the facile, transparent merging of collective history with individual biography (as in mainland director Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine of the same year) Hou suggests that a single life can no more be summed up in a montage than History itself can be consumed and digested.
Hou’s interest in penetrating the borders between reality and fiction, and past and present, have been recurring motifs in his career. Good Men Good Women (1995) interweaves the story of a contemporary actress whose gangster boyfriend has been murdered, with the story of a real life member of the anti-Japanese resistance whom she is about to play in a film within the film. Both women are haunted by loss and hounded by persecutors (one by a fax stalker, the other by Communist apparachiks). Unfortunately, the film’s ostentatiously postmodern conceit detracts from Hou’s usual acuity. The film seems like a parody of a Hou film made by a lesser director.
With Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996), Hou focused on the character of the smalltime gangster, played by Jack Kao, who dreams of opening his own restaurant. Part genre parody, part ethnographic curiosity, this Warholian sketch of a marginalized band of losers could literally be called The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. By emptying the conventions of the Chinese gangster film, Goodbye South Goodbye becomes a meditation on failure: the failure of its meshuggah characters to step outside of their own ineptitude, the failure to move beyond the banal to the sublime, the failure, in essence, of “real” life to live up to the movies.
Though it was entirely shot in Taiwan, Flowers of Shanghai (1998) marked Hou’s first departure from his native cultural context, as well as his stylistic shift from restrained minimalism to congested opulence. This sensuous portrait of life in late nineteenth century brothels captures the subtle power shifts implicit in the exchange of women-for-sale. A self-conscious seduction of both the cinephilic and sinophilic gaze, Flowers shuffles exquisitely painted women with the same fluidity as Robert Bresson’s pickpocket fingers money.
Indeed, the courtesan “flowers” of the title are currency. Saturated with nostalgic longing, Flowers evokes desire for the sumptuous textures of a world that no longer exists, while investigating desire itself. Even in the midst of irresistible and attainable objects of beauty, desire can never be fulfilled. Judging from Hou’s rapt attention to the rituals, rhythms and repetitions of the brothels, the intricate staging of desire proves more gratifying than its actual satisfaction.
Hou’s cinema once pined for the past and romanticized its obsolescence. His more recent movies have proved his adapability in the face of ever-shifting global capitalism. In his dancing between the quotidian and the epic, the present and the past, the “real” and the fictive, Hou confronts new technologies, and the new sensibilities and ways of being-in-the-world that they engender.
Told completely in flashback to 2001 from ten years into the future, Millennium Mambo (2001) is Hou’s pop meditation on fin-de-siècle youth. Set to throbbing electronica, this ode to the Taiwanese superstar Shu Qi, presents her skipping between men, clubs, and drugs. Shu careens from pathos to ecstasy and back again. On its glimmering surface, Mambo seems more like a Wong Kar Wai than a Hou Hsiao-Hsien film. Yet with its melancholy voiceover à la Chris Marker, it becomes apparent that the fun remains only skin deep.
Cell phones, fax machines, and laptops signify as poetically in Hou’s contemporary films as puppets and opium pipes do in his period pieces. In the spectrum of temporal landscapes that Hou constructs, these objets du jour are transformed into signifiers for that which cannot be expressed, the parameters of which change in every historical age.
If meaningful, direct communication does occur in Hou’s world, it is often between texts or ghosts rather than living, breathing people. Café Lumière (2003) is an explicit homage to Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963), the director with whom Hou has been most frequently compared. Ozu brought a Zen Buddhist reverence for the mundane to the screen. With his slow, deliberate pacing, off-centered framing, spare, evocative montage, and a static camera positioned approximately three feet off the floor (mimicking the point of view of someone sitting on a tatami mat), Ozu subtly explored the empty spaces and temporal lapses where true meaning resides. By staging much of the significant action offscreen, Ozu was one of the first directors to affirm the reality of the world beyond the frame.
Set in modern Tokyo, Café Lumière is a deliberate study of life where Ozu left off, a Tokyo Story for the new millennium. Hovering at the requisite three feet, Ozu’s ghost haunts the film in the form of a camera, but the world Ozu so poetically captured has vanished. Traditional family life has been all but eroded by urban modernity. Individuals disperse like atoms in a melancholic world of trains and transnational commuters. When the protagonist—an unwed, expectant mother who manifests little interest in settling down—finally takes a meal with her parents, no one has anything to say.
In his recent work, Hou Hsiao-Hsien has evinced nostalgia not only for the 20th century and its cinephilic practices, but for Hou Hsiao-Hsien himself. Divided neatly into three separate sections corresponding to three distinct historical periods (1911, 1966, 2005), Three Times (2005) tells of a love affair between the same two actors that proves equally impossible in every era. Here, Hou obsessively repeats and revisits: the 1911 sequence, told with intertitles rather than dialogue, lusciously evokes Flowers of Shanghai. Complete with beehives, billiards and rock and roll, the 1966 segment conjures Hou’s own youthful awakening as told through the lens of Godard, with Shu Qi preening as Hou’s native Anna Karina. As history would have it, sex between near strangers is only possible in the most contemporary setting, shot as a direct homage to Hou’s own Millenium Mambo. Yet considering the frustrated, burdened trajectory love has traveled in order to arrive in modern day Taipei, it is already too late for physical intimacy to redeem the star-crossed lovers.
As Hou’s camera peels through cities, layer by layer, in films like Goodbye South, Goodbye, Millenium Mambo, Three Lives and Flight, he documents moments that are always already lost. For Hou, all cities are by nature cities of sadness. The architecture and infrastructure of the metropolis—its crisscrossing train tracks and overpasses, its tunnels and traffic—bespeak a nexus of unfulfilled and often unspoken desires, a constellation of lives burning brightly and barely, poignantly touching.
Throughout all of his historical shifts of focus, Hou has nonetheless remained an almost textbook-variety auteur, with his signature use of static long takes, telephoto lensing, elliptical editing, and de-centered framing. By keeping the most significant action outside of, or on the borders of the frame, Hou leaves us nothing but the textures of everyday life to ponder.
Frequently punctuated by moments of explicit performance—whether in the form of puppet theater, a swooning chanteuse, or a sublimely tracking camera—Hou’s filmmaking practice is, paradoxically, both a cinema of attractions and a cinema of meditation. Yet these “attractions” don’t so much interrupt the narrative as commemorate its absence. Without the anchor of conventional plot-driven stories, narrative becomes a mere diversion. Like the cinema of Andy Warhol and Andrei Tarkovsky, nothing much happens. Or everything does. It depends on how you look at it.
In his three decades of filmmaking, Hou has pioneered a visual language descriptive of the difficulties of seeing. In tracking shots that move away from rather than towards the meaningful object—whether that object is person, place, thing or history itself—Hou suggests the impossible reaching towards, but never grasping, that defines both desire and the quest for knowledge.
Ara Osterweil is an Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Muhlenberg College.