There's such fascination in watching Hou Hsiao-Hsien stage each of his exactly calibrated shots - masterful long takes in which he expertly shifts his characters around a tightly controlled cinematic space - that it goes a long way towards making up for his latest film's somewhat indifferent treatment of both setting and character. If each of Hou's previous features managed to capture some essential correspondence between the film's total environment and the figures that populate it - the alternating languors and sudden bursts of motion experienced by the petty gangsters drifting through Goodbye South, Goodbye, the insistent throb of the techno beat that defines the young couple's lives in Millennium Mambo - then The Flight of the Red Balloon fails to achieve the same knowing intimacy. With the settings lacking the fullness of lived-in spaces, there's a certain sketchiness to the whole thing, a sense of the film's world as ultimately static and lifeless. Without a smooth integration of place and character, of emotion and technique, we're left to marvel of the film's formal qualities while regretting the lost opportunity to experience a cinematic Paris as comprehensively imagined as the director's Taiwan.
"Freely adapted" from Albert Lamorisse's The Red Balloon, the largely non-narrative film follows the daily lives of three Parisians: a harried mother (a terrific Juliette Binoche, getting down the frenzied agitation of single parenthood), her young son (Simon Iteanu) and their film-student nanny (Song Fang). If Lamorisse's film provides a framework for the current undertaking, though, it's rather a sketchy one. The images borrowed from the earlier work register more as occasional intrusions - both the presence of a balloon itself floating around Paris and a film-within-a-film which seems a much more literal remake of Lamorisse's picture than Hou's framing narrative - rather than consistent presences. These elements suffer from a somewhat imperfect assimilation into the film's overall design, disappearing for large gaps of time only to reappear for lengthy, isolated stretches - but, given the film's generally loose structure, this spotty integration doesn't prove overly distracting. Either way, the result is a lovely series of images, most fully realized in the film's closing sequence as the balloon floats over a spread of Parisian rooftops. The work's other contextual borrowing, a treatment of the Chinese puppet theater, may seem no more organically integrated into the film's world, but it too provides several of the picture's finest scenes, most notably the orchestration of an eye-popping chiaroscuro staging, with the camera investigating the backstage space during a performance, picking brilliantly lit figures out of an otherwise total darkness - all set to Juliette Binoche's spirited narration and the occasional rumble of a baritone saxophone.
Although the film makes occasional forays into the streets and cafés of Paris, a good majority of the work is confined to interiors, and particularly to the apartment that forms the central setting. An old-fashioned duplex gone slightly to seed, the apartment allows Hou and cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing to exert complete control over their principal stagings. Working variations on a theme, a large number of shots begin with two characters sitting at the breakfast table, framed by a door on one side and an out-of-focus kitchen recessed into the background on the other. With glowing yellows highlighting the principal figures, Hou moves his characters from their initial positionings to various locations around the scene, his camera trackings slowly opening up fresh views of the apartment. In a final tour-de-force staging, the film's principal narrative strands come together in one long take, while a blind tuner works away at the family's piano, seemingly oblivious to the screaming and crying taking place around him. Brilliantly shifting attention from one corner of the apartment to another as the action progresses, all the while maintaining a sense of the setting as an utterly coherent space, Hou provides elegant proof of the beauty of the sort of intricately crafted staging that is increasingly rare in contemporary cinema. That this staging is primarily of interest for its own sake means that the film hasn't, perhaps, succeeded on a fundamental level, but given the opportunity to watch this kind of formal mastery, we would certaintly be unwise to pass it up.