Archive for the ‘Taiwanese New Wave’ Category


“Le voyage du ballon rouge”/”The Flight of the Red Balloon,” dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien

October 12, 2009

"The Flight of the Red Balloon"

Not as audacious or as rich as Hou’s best work, but rewarding all the same. As gorgeous as, say, Christopher Doyle or Roger Deakins’ work can be, the cinematography here is even more impressive, absolutely stunning in the way complex, layered compositions are captured in the most ordinary settings. The way sunlight reflects over a train window, or how reflections frame the characters inside a café…These aren’t fabrications or alterations rooted in the filmmakers’ imaginations, they’re the result of phenomenal observational skills, and it’s all done with a naturalist aesthetic, using the most basic tools. (Only the obvious tricks involving the reappearing balloon betray any post-production trickery, a fact Hou sardonically acknowledges in the film.)

And like most of Hou’s work, this is a film built around subtle moments – small, fleeting expressions that reveal so much. During one crucial scene – played out in a long, well-orchestrated take – Juliette Binoche’s character, Suzanne, is overwhelmed and nearly pushed to collapse. The payoff comes after the flood of action leading up to that moment, when we witness the gradual changes in Suzanne’s face as she slips away from breakdown and dissolves into contentment, a sea change of emotion in what’s otherwise a slow, uneventful minute. (If you’re not fluent in French, it’s even worth seeing again without the necessary distraction of subtitles.)

Juliette Binoche (Suzanne) in "The Flight of the Red Balloon"

Juliette Binoche (Suzanne) in "The Flight of the Red Balloon"

There’s no escaping the strains that continue to chip away at Suzanne – her husband has been away for years, she has tenant problems and the separation from her daughter is also taking its toll. But she always finds her way back, through her work, through what she sees in Simon (shielded in childhood from the adult pressures she faces) and most importantly through Simon’s babysitter, Song, who’s appropriately enough a Chinese film graduate, making her a virtual stand-in for Hou…

Which brings me to the balloon: unlike the original French short, the actual red balloon in this picture keeps its distance. When it pops up, it’s usually seen outside a window, like an observer. It’s a perfect metaphor for the sensibilities at work here, of one culture gliding through another, and the comfort one now brings to the other.

By the end of the film, art seems to be treasured as a way of capturing something precious and ephemeral, whether it’s those gorgeous visuals I mentioned earlier or a sense of ease that needs to be preserved.

"The Flight of the Red Balloon"